The AK47 rifle, the symbol of Africa's independence struggles, wars and revolutions, is causing a less-known revolution for the continent's elephants, threatening in some cases to wipe them out of whole countries.

The Soviet-designed rifle, also known as the Kalashnikov, and similar automatic weapons seem to find their way to wherever there is strife. The trouble for Africa's rapidly declining elephant population is that after the wars are over, or even during the conflict, poachers often turn the weapons on the animals.

Widespread availability of weapons, the residue of a decade of chaos and war in Uganda, has been responsible largely for the death of all but about 20 of the 9,000 elephants that once roamed the southern part of this game park along the Nile River.

"The Kalashnikov revolution has reduced elephant populations dramatically," says Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a prominent authority on the animals. "It has meant that elephants are no longer encroaching on farm land," the major threat to their survival 10 years ago.

"In the 1960s and early 1970s we never considered the possibility that automatic weapons would be used," Douglas-Hamilton said. "We only thought of it in a horror scenario."

Ivory poaching, he said, accounts for the deaths of 50,000 to 150,000 elephants a year, and he estimated that probably only a million elephants are left on the continent. That number is bound to be decreasing as wars of varying intensity are being fought in Angola, Namibia and Mozambique, where there are significant elephant populations.

Although vast numbers have been killed in Zaire, Zambia and Kenya, nowhere has the slaughter been more devastating than in Uganda. Between 1970 and 1980, 90 percent of the elephants were killed, reducing the population in the country from 30,000 to 2,000 in the best-documented extermination in Africa.

After years of compiling such grim statistics, however, wildlife experts are hoping that the worst may be over in Uganda and that elephants may eventually make a comeback.

Frank Poppleton, a British conservationist who heads a United Nations antipoaching project in Uganda, said a census carried out between June and September shows that the population has "stabilized" at 2,000.

"Basically poaching has stopped," he said.

In 1980, Douglas-Hamilton, who carried out the two censuses, said he saw more dead elephants than live ones. In the latest census he did not see the carcasses of any recently killed elephants, he said.

Poppleton attributed the dramatic reduction in poaching to the concern of the government for reviving tourism and to the $1 million antipoaching project of the U.N. Development Program, which has led to the stationing of about 100 Ugandan rangers in each of the country's three game parks.

Douglas-Hamilton estimates that an optimum population of 15,000 could be reached -- in almost half a century. The fate of the animals may rest on the stability of the Ugandan government. The country experienced five different governments in 1979-80.

Two years ago the elephant was threatened with the same fate as the rhinoceros, which has virtually disappeared from Uganda. "Now the situation is better," Douglas-Hamilton said, but he warned that renewed instability could push the elephants to the edge of extinction.

The problem in Uganda has been greed: ivory can bring more than $30 per pound overseas. A large elephant's tusks can easily weigh 200 pounds, and even an eight-ton elephant cannot survive the deadly force of an automatic weapon.

Until recently, no matter who was in power, the elephants were victims of armies, a cross-border conflict and countless tribes from four countries that have learned that the profit from the sale of one pair of tusks can far exceed the salary for an entire year's work.

The herds were depleted twice by dictator Idi Amin's army -- first by high-ranking officers who organized a lucrative poaching trade and then by the depredations of the soldiers as they retreated to Sudan and Zaire when Amin was overthrown in 1979.

Most of the killings came after Amin was deposed. Soldiers of the Tanzanian Army and the Uganda National Liberation Army poached at Murchison Falls, in northwestern Uganda, and at Queen Elizabeth National Park in southern Uganda along the borders with Zaire and Rwanda.

Three-quarters of the elephants in Murchison Falls park were killed in 1979-80, according to a 1980 census. Both armies' soldiers tended to live off the land and appeared to regard the game in the park as their rightful food. Ugandan troops home on leave also lent their rifles to local poachers in return for a share of the spoils, according to the wardens.

Uganda's three game parks are adjacent to neighboring countries, making it easier for civilian poachers to escape across unpatrolled borders.

Kidepo National Park, whose northern boundary forms the border with Sudan, is the one park where poaching has still not been brought under control, although the situation is brighter since armed clashes between rangers and the Sudanese Army ended almost a year ago.

"There are some wild men in those mountains," Douglas-Hamilton said as he landed his patrol aircraft at the park's dirt airstrip. The hunting routes of tribesmen from Uganda, Kenya and Sudan pass through Kidepo.

Park rangers found seven dead elephants with their tusks removed in September, the only major known incidents of elephant poaching in recent months. Local tribesmen are believed to be responsible.

Until last December, Sudanese Army patrols regularly crossed into the park to poach. When the Ugandan Army was called in to halt the poaching, the Sudanese troops killed two Ugandan soldiers and a ranger. A Sudanese soldier was killed in a ranger ambush last December.

The "war" really heated up when the Sudanese fired small arms on three occasions at Douglas-Hamilton's plane, a donation from American wildlife benefactors. On one occasion three bullets hit the plane, but no one was injured.

Diplomatic efforts early this year by the United States, a major arms supplier to Sudan, brought an end to most of the incidents. The rangers and Sudanese troops have regular meetings to iron out problems, Douglas-Hamilton said.

Half a dozen grave markers for fallen rangers near the park headquarters are evidence of frontier fighting since Sudan became independent in 1956.

The Kidepo rangers were given a special award "for valor in face of superior odds and bullets" by the world congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Kedepo's remoteness -- a hard two days' drive north from Kampala, the capital -- has made it more vulnerable to poaching.

Rangers who made the trip by truck in the rainy season took two weeks. By the time they arrived they were low on food and out of fuel, greatly limiting their patrols in the 500-square-mile park, according to Fred Kayanja, chairman of the National Parks Board.

With the Ugandan government strapped for funds, most agencies have had their budgets slashed and the national parks have had their $550,000 annual allocation cut by a third.

Kayanja said foreign aid had helped to keep the parks going with key assistance coming from the U.N. project and a $500,000 program for equipment and maintenance by the European Community. Private wildlife organizations also have assisted, and some food for the rangers has come fron the U.N. World Food Program.

In an ironic way, the dead elephants are helping the survivors through the financial pinch. Almost 2,000 pounds of tusks, captured from poachers and with an overseas market value of $60,000, recently were sold by the parks department. The proceeds were used to buy fuel for about three months.

Before Amin, the parks were self-supporting because of revenues from tourism. In 1970, Murchison Falls had almost 60,000 foreign tourists. Last year, fewer than 8,000 people visited the park -- mostly Ugandans.

The foreign tourists will come back with the elephants and security in the countryside, Keyanja said, adding, "There is no doubt in my mind that with regard to elephants we are past the stage of holding our own. I've flown over the three parks and I've seen baby elephants. At one time you didn't see any."

It is a long road back, however. The Uganda Airlines 1982 calendar shows two gigantic elephants, the kind with tusks of 100 pounds or more. The picture would have been fine on a 1972 calendar. No such elephants exist in Uganda today.