YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) — Despite armed guards, Cameroon's dwindling elephant population is being decimated by heavily armed gangs of international poachers, according to a top official of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Tighter security has been mounted because intelligence shows that two gangs of poachers from Sudan are heading for the area, said WWF Cameroon conservation director Hanson Njiforti at a press conference Tuesday.
In the first quarter of this year, poachers traveled more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) on horseback from Sudan, crossing through the Central African Republic to reach northern Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida National Park where they killed more than 300 elephants in two months. The killings wiped out about 80 percent of the park's elephant population.
"Two large groups of these same armed poachers are again on their way to Cameroon and are actually in the Republic of Central Africa," warned Njiforti.
The high demand for ivory in Asia threatens the remaining elephant population in Cameroon and the Central African sub-region with possible extinction, said United States Ambassador to Cameroon Robert P. Jackson, who also spoke to journalists.
"They (poachers) have already exterminated Cameroon's rhinoceroses, and if additional measures are not taken soon, Cameroon and other countries' elephants will be the next to become extinct," said Jackson.
Africa is home to roughly 600,000 elephants, just a third of the number recorded a decade ago, according to data released by the U.S. embassy. Conservationists say that at least 25,000 elephants were killed in the continent in 2012 alone, due to the demand for ivory, as the bodies of the animals were abandoned after their ivory tusks were removed.
"Ivory is priced for jewelry, ornaments and religious carvings and is valued as a luxury item. The flow of ivory from Africa to East Asia has been estimated at 72 tons per year, worth $62 million, and equivalent to 7,000 elephants," said Jackson, who said United States intelligence is being used to support Cameroon's battle against poaching.
Cameroon, like the United States, is a member of the more than 170-member nations belonging to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which prohibits the sale of ivory.
Twenty years ago, a kilogram of an elephant ivory was worth CFA F5,000 ($10) in the Cameroonian rural area, said Bars Huijbregts, WWF Representative in the Central African sub-region. "But today, it costs CFA F150,000 ($297). At an average weight of 6.8 kilograms (15 pounds) of ivory per elephant, each elephant killed is worth more than a year's revenue for a person in the sub-region," said Huijbregts.
Poachers commonly use Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifles and sometimes even fly in helicopters to track and kill the elephants, according to the WWF, which reported that at least 22 elephants have been killed so far in 2012 in the Garamba National Park in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville.
Cameroon deployed its anti-terrorist Rapid Intervention Batallion to push back the poachers earlier this year and deployed 500 of the less heavily-armed environmental scouts to Bouba Ndjida park. Environment Minister Philip Ngwese pledged that that 2,000 more would be added to the contingent. The environmental guards carry out surveillance to supplement the military's efforts to track the armed poachers.
It is feared that Nigeria's Islamist extremists Boko Haram could be involved in the poaching, as well as gangs from Chad and the Central African Republic, which surround northern Cameroon.
Endemic corruption in Cameroon and many other African countries with elephant populations could undermine the battle against the slaughter of the animals, said the experts.
The WWF and the U.S. government are also using a diplomatic offensive to try to persuade the countries that are buying ivory to take domestic measures to reduce demand.
"The elephants are being killed because there is demand," said Jackson. "So, we're in talks with the consuming nations of ivory to see that their governments stop the sale of ivory in there."