Crime gangs in East Africa are generating staggering profits smuggling ivory and rhino horn with impunity, experts say, threatening both an irreplaceable wildlife heritage and important tourism industries.

Ports in Kenya and Tanzania are the “primary gateway” for ivory smuggled to Asia, where demand is fueled by affluent markets, especially in China, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warns.

Last year, seizures of ivory shipments reached “record levels”, according to a recent Interpol report.

Baby elephant rushes to play blissfully unaware of all the poaching going on..“Large-scale ivory shipments — each one representing the slaughter of hundreds of elephants — point to the involvement of organised crime networks operating across multiple countries,” Interpol said.

Poaching has risen sharply across Africa in recent years.

Organised gangs with insider knowledge and armed with automatic weapons and specialised equipment such as night vision goggles, brazenly use chainsaws to carve out the rhino horn or remove elephant tusks.

Veteran Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey has now warned that drastic action must be taken, saying that known ringleaders in Kenya are operating with “outrageous impunity”.

The rise in poaching, with animals being slaughtered inside even the most heavily guarded national parks or conservation areas, show that the poachers have little fear of tough new laws designed to stem the wave of killings, he said.

“They could not operate with the impunity we are seeing if you did not have some form of protection from law enforcement agencies,” Mr Leakey said, as he made an appeal for Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to take action. “It is a problem of a few criminals … the ringleaders are known,” he added, claiming that a core group of around 20 to 30 people were organising the poaching but none had faced justice.

It is a lucrative business: a kilogramme of ivory is worth some 850 in Asia, with the UNODC suggesting ivory smuggled to Asia from Eastern Africa was worth over $31m in 2011.

But such short-term and finite profits generated by the killings are threatening the far more valuable tourism industry, which in Kenya and Tanzania is the second largest foreign exchange earner after agriculture.

“The African elephant is not currently deemed ‘endangered’ as a species, but its decimation in East Africa could be devastating,” UNODC’s report read.

“In addition to the reduction in genetic diversity, its loss could seriously undermine local tourist revenues, a key source of foreign exchange for many of the countries of the region.”

But the region’s two large container ports — Mombasa in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania — are also notorious trafficking hubs, funnelling more elephant tusks to Asia than all of central, southern and west African nations combined.