There is something particularly gruesome about the sight of a slaughtered elephant, killed for its tusks, and left for vultures to feed upon.
Poachers, interested only in the heavy ivory tusks--which can bring $30 a pound -- hack the entire lower jaw with an ax. That leaves the frontal area exposed, with a honeycomb of bone protecting the brain.
Our party of three realized we were in the vicinity of a freshly slaughtered elephant during a recent drive through Kidepo National Park, along the Sudanese border in northeastern Uganda, when we saw the huge vultures circling overhead and then smelled the unmistakable stench of death.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a leading authority on elephants, pointed out the dried blood showing the route of the elephant as he staggered to his death.
We climb a slight rise and there in a hollow under an acacia tree is the dead elephant, a bull, perhaps 25 years old, lying on his right side. He probably had died about five days before.
The vultures scavenging mountains of flesh do not scare easily at the sight of humans. They only reluctantly and slowly struggle out from inside the carcass and fly a short, safe distance away, waiting for us to leave.
The trunk has already disappeared; the softest flesh, it is eaten first. The hoofs are also gone, exposing the toes.
The rotting hide is covered with droppings from the vultures. The ground is littered with desert dates from the elephant's stomach -- a favorite food in his 300-pound daily diet.
Somehow the scene seemed all the more gruesome in this beautiful park with its mist-covered mountains and fresh green grass from the new rains. Violent death was like an intruder.
But the evidence of weapons was there. Before spotting the elephant we had seen the embankment of a dry riverbed from which the poachers had fired. Bullet casings were everywhere. They were all from 7.62mm shells, the standard size for both NATO and Soviet rifles. Two bore the NATO star insignia, one had German markings, another had Arabic writing.
The rangers had tracked the poachers four miles toward a Ugandan village away from the nearby Sudanese border, so the culprits in this case were most likely from Uganda's Karamojong tribe.
We had been directed to the carcass by a squad of 10 rangers patrolling for poachers on Mt. Milingy, which commands a view of two valleys that are the route into the park from Sudan.
There are not many elephants to see either in Kidepo or Murchison Falls National Park, but when they are spotted, they are often in large herds with adult males and females mixed together.
The size and mixture of the herds is highly unusual, Douglas-Hamilton explained, and probably results from the harassment the huge beasts have experienced during a decade of poaching.
Normally elephants have an intricate, matriarchal family structure. The males are expelled from the herd at puberty, about age 15, and the adult females are the protectors of the small groups. Since the leaders instinctively rush to the front to protect their families when danger arises they are most likely to be killed by poachers.
The loss of their leaders has made the animals more vulnerable to poachers, Douglas-Hamilton said, because they then form large herds and bunch up in their confusion. Because the elephants are so nervous, they tend to run for miles when they see humans and this sometimes kills the babies who cannot keep up.
The sharp reduction in elephants has affected the ecology of the game parks, especially Murchison Falls, where acacias, palms, sausage trees and other foliage are flourishing because of the absence of the animals that feed so heavily on them.
Murchison Falls has gone through such cycles before. When the young Winston Churchill visited the area in the early 1900s, he recorded that the human population had forced the animals to retreat. Then an epidemic of sleeping sickness killed thousands of people, and the animals returned.
Now it is possible Murchison Falls National Park is in a new cycle -- the return of the elephants after years of harassment. The few in the park now, however, are very nervous.
After searching for more than an hour, Douglas-Hamilton came upon a large herd of about 100 elephants in the northern part of the park.
"One thing I'm not going to do is stir them up," he said. "They have a hard enough life as it is."