CHINA The wild elephants that once roamed freely over southern China, retreated long ago to the dense tropical rain forests which cover the mountains near the nation's borders with Myanmar (previously Burma) and Laos.

The dwindling elephant population that now survives has been further ravaged in recent years by poachers eager for the animals' tusks, a pair of which can fetch them as much as us $10,000. And that is a big sum indeed in an area where four out of every five people come from farming households and where the per-capita income does not exceed us $300 a year.

Now, after years of apathy and neglect, the local wildlife officials say that they are getting serious about protecting elephants and other endangered animals, and vow that the poachers are in for some severe punishment.

The elephant population has now stabilised at a little more than 200, claim the official figures, though the animals amble through a remote territory that straddles the border with Laos, making it difficult to count them accurately. In many parts of the country, one of the costs of fast economic growth over the previous decade has been the extensive damage suffered by the environment and wildlife.

In this area of rich rain forest, there are more than 600 species of terrestrial wildlife and nearly 100 have been deemed worthy of state protection, including the animals in question

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