Discuss as:

Family of 12 elephants slain by poachers in Kenya

The carcasses of a family of elephants have been found in a wildlife reserve in Kenya - the victims of the worst massacre on record by ivory poachers there. NBC News' Rohit Kachroo reports.

TSAVO EAST NATIONAL PARK, Kenya -- The bodies of five elephants lie under the shade of the trees – their giant ears flapping in the wind, but their majestic bodies totally still.

It is a gruesome sight in this, one of Kenya’s oldest, largest and most stunningly beautiful national parks.

As our helicopter circles the scene, we glimpse two other elephants nearby: A mother lying dead next to a baby calf - her daughter. The bodies of another three siblings sit in the baking heat. Other corpses are slumped across several acres of parkland.

In total, there are 12 slain elephants – a family, murdered on Saturday in Kenya’s bloodiest attack by poachers on record.

The spot is so remote – inaccessible by road vehicles – that it was only possible for us to reach them by the air. And yet, the poachers are thought to have trekked for days – maybe weeks – through the dense bushes with the intention of killing the family for their horns. It is, perhaps, an indication of the poachers’ determination, and the sophistication of their planning.

Armed with guns and axes, the 15-strong gang struck during the day. They shot the animals one by one before sawing off their tusks. Park rangers chased their footprints for 10 miles into the bush, but the trail vanished. Investigators believe that they may have dumped the tusks in the park to collect later, before splitting up and disappearing into the woods.

Wilson Korir, who leads the military-style defense force tasked with protecting the park from poachers, said: “These guys [the gang of poachers] are now looking for some crude transport like the use of a donkey to be able to transfer the tusks to the nearest center where they can ferry it using a vehicle.”

 “We have a lot of covert operations going on outside. We have positioned a platoon of rangers outside there just to wait and see. If they appear they will pounce and arrest.”

Accompanied by rangers, we leave our helicopter and walk towards the spot where some of the bodies lie. We are all struck by the stench of the corpses, as flies swarm and maggots eat away at them. The face of each of the animals is badly severed – it is clear where the poachers’ axes have struck.

From the position of the elephants, investigators suspect that there was a stampede as the animals tried -- and failed -- to race away.

It is grim evidence of a growing problem for Kenya. According to the country’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, 360 elephants were killed in Kenya last year – almost one a day – up from 289 in 2011.

Demand comes from the growing middle class in China, where ground tusk is said to have medicinal value, and ivory is still desirable in jewelry and home decorations. A pound of illegal ivory can fetch around $1,000.

“The dynamics of poaching are taking a different angle altogether because there is a lot of demand for ivory from outside,” Korir said.

“But in the history of Tsavo National Park this is the worst.”

He welcomes promises of greater investment in wildlife security, and calls by world leaders for a global campaign against trafficking. But his priority now is to find the poachers behind Saturday’s attack. 

“The message is clear. They come (back) into the national park at their own peril. The rangers are there and waiting for them. They come and they will be eliminated.

“These are dangerous gangs. They carry firearms. There are no two ways about it – fire for fire. So let them come. We are equally prepared. We are waiting.”

Wildlife activists are calling for Interpol and the World Customs Association to work together to crackdown on the trade in ivory, issuing heavier penalties for those caught illegally dealing. Poaching has increased recently, fueled by a demand in Asia for jewelry and ornaments. ITV's Paul Davies reports.

Related stories:

Cursed creature: India battles rhino poachers

Rhino slaughter in South Africa sets savage pace

Hunted for horns worth more than gold, S. Africa's rhinos face worst year on record

Kenya Wildlife Services step up collaring efforts in wake of increased poaching