The team conducting the aerial wildlife counts of Tanzania in 2013 and 2014 knew poaching was becoming a major problem, but nothing could have prepared them for what they uncovered.
Tanzania had lost two-thirds of its once mighty elephant population in just four years, as demand from China for their ivory tusks sent a highly-organised army of rifle and chainsaw-wielding criminals into its game reserves.
“I had never seen anything like that – there were carcasses everywhere, whole family groups on their sides, between three and seven animals, wiped out,” he told The Telegraph.
“Flying over these huge areas and even driving through, you used to see dozens of huge bull elephants.
“There was this incredible sense of life missing from that landscape that’s so defined by these creatures. It’s just hollow.”
Three hundred and fifty feet below them, in a safari vehicle, tour guide David Guthrie was doing his best to explain to his visitors why he was driving away from circling vultures – usually the sign for a seasoned big game watcher of a tourist-thrilling lion kill.
“In 17 years of working in the Selous I had seen two elephant carcasses but in 2010 they started appearing in numbers and by 2012 it was just awful,” he said.
“We were hearing shots regularly from the camps. We would have injured bull elephants walking in to try to find safety and dying under trees.
“The rangers were having to block access to areas – it was just carnage.”
Having led the way in calling for a ban on elephant ivory exports in the 1980s, Tanzania had grown complacent about stewarding its bountiful wildlife.
With its reputation as the elephant capital of the world and listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the Selous earned around $9m (£5.8m) a year in visitor revenues. But the government returned only 20 per cent for the running of the park.
Mr Guthrie said its few rangers were “powerless and totally demoralised”, working with scant weaponry, tents and food. Swaggering poachers set up camps in prime areas, and in some cases moved in to ranger posts.
Run by big criminal syndicates based in Dar es Salaam, the poachers worked in “highly-mechanised teams”, according to Howard Frederick.
“You would have lead teams who would go out and scout an area, then kill teams come in, ambush and kill whole groups,” he said.
“They move on to the next area while the butchering team comes in and chops all the tusks and then the transport team comes in. It’s progressed from being very casual poaching to teams of highly-organised individuals.”
Tanzania’s elephants were an obvious target.
When world-renowned elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton conducted the first aerial survey of Tanzania in 1976, the country had 316,000 elephants, the largest pachyderm population on the planet.
“For someone who counts elephants, it was like Everest for a mountaineer,” he told The Telegraph this week from his base in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve. “It was incredible. An unblemished wilderness teeming with elephants.”
In 2013, there were a number of seizures of several tonnes-worth of ivory which, it was suggested, had come from Tanzania.
Rob Muir, the Africa programme director for the Frankfurt Zoological Society, a wildlife organisation with a long history in the east African country, said it became clear poaching – a problem across Africa – hadsurged in the Selous, a game reserve twice the size of Belgium.
The government and the FZS put together a multinational survey team to determine how bad the problem was.
When their work was completed in October 2013, they were devastated.
“We recalculated about 1,000 times because we didn’t believe what we were seeing,” said Mr Frederick.
In Selous and its surrounding ecosystem, the elephant population was the lowest since counts began, down from 109,000 in 1976 to 13,084 in 2013.
“It served as a wake-up call for how serious poaching had become,” said Mr Muir. “One of the great elephant strongholds had just been decimated.”
The Tanzanian government said it would beef up protection of its wildlife and accepted a flood of offers of help, including the Americans who sent marines to train its rangers.
At an international anti-poaching conference in London in April last year, President Jakaya Kikwete said he had brought in the military and hinted his government had identified the poaching kingpin.
But there was further bad news.
Paul Allen, the Microsoft founder, stepped forward asking about the situation in Africa’s other national parks. He funded a second survey which late last year revealed that the poachers, having all but wiped out the Selous’s elephants, had moved on to Ruaha, Tanzania’s largest national park.
In just one year, between 2013 and 2014, its elephant population plummeted by 60 per cent – around 1,000 elephants a month – to 8,200 elephants.
A major DNA study of seized ivory shipments confirmed that 85 per cent of African tusks came from two areas, a patch of West Africa and Tanzania.
Mr Muir met a honeymooning American couple on an internal flight who had spent thousands of dollars travelling to see Selous’s elephants – and had left without finding a single one.
“The woman was in a degree of shock and deeply upset,” he said.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton said the elephants, famously sensitive and intelligent creatures with long memories, would have gone into hiding.
“They become much more frightened, they run away from humans, hide in thick bush and become largely nocturnal,” he said.
At a cocktail party in Dar in June, Lazaro Nyalandu, the tourism minister, announced a new “Wildlife Pride” awareness campaign involving a former Miss Tanzania and a basketball star.
During an address at Cambridge University later in the month, he touched on the decline but also highlighted that elephant numbers had begun to rise again in the Selous and talked about “successful drivers of conservation”.
The government is still refusing to publish the report of the 2014 Ruaha count, citing a lack of carcasses confirming the deaths.
Mr Nyalandu has suggested the disappearance of 12,000 elephants from that reserve was “the greatest wildlife mystery ever” and pledged to send out search parties to determine if they had emigrated to neighbouring countries.
Conservationists say there is no doubt the elephants fell victim to poachers but that their carcasses were simply picked clean before they were discovered. The latest figures, they say, are deeply embarrassing after Mr Kikwete told the London conference of his efforts to stop the slaughter.
Few believe that Tanzania has turned a corner in its attempts to clamp down on poaching.
Rob Muir believes elephant levels have now hit a “threshold” and can’t go much lower in the Selous and Ruaha because like tourists, the poachers cannot find them.
He fears that without concerted effort by government and success in driving down demand from Chinese consumers, they could switch their sights elsewhere, to Katavi National Park in the West or even the fabled Serengeti, where the FZS is based in a cluster of tin and whitewash huts surrounded by acacia trees.
Dr Alfred Kikoti, Tanzania’s foremost elephant expert, said the outgoing government of Mr Nyalandu represents remains part of the problem because of its unwillingness to take on the powerful networks of corruption police, immigration and wildlife officials and politicians that help the poachers to operate unhindered.
Several attempts to dismantle these networks have floundered.
The military operation announced by Mr Kikwete cut poaching cases to almost zero overnight, but was halted after just one month because of alleged human rights abuses. Insiders say the abuses were a convenient cover: the operation was getting too close to political masters and disrupting their lucrative operations.
Not long after, tourism minister Khamis Kagasheki, who made waves by handing the president a secret list of senior politicians involved in poaching, was sacked along with three other ministers blamed for the botched operation. The list was quietly buried.
Dr Kikoti believes that until a new president is elected in October, little will change.
“I think if this government decides tomorrow that they don’t want this to continue and are going to deal with it then it’s possible to reverse the decline,” he said.
“But it has to come from the top and it has to be made known that no one is immune if they are involved.”
He and other wildlife groups have dedicated the next three months to committing the ruling party’s candidate, John Magufuli, a virtual shoe-in for the top job, to their cause.
For Dr Kikoti, that means a military task force for each park and reserve, an end to political appointees in wildlife authorities, stiffer penalties and more prosecutions for poaching and, critically, a message that there will be no holy cows in the fight to save Tanzania’s elephants.
“I really hope that this new guy will make a difference, he will become the president for the jungle,” he said. “He must fight for our wildlife, and has promised he will.”