2 dead as Cameroon army fights to save jumbos
Dakar - The fight to save elephants from ivory poachers in Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida national park has reached new deadly levels, with at least two people killed and about 400 elephants slaughtered since January, rights group say.
A poacher, a soldier and 10 elephants were killed in one clash alone last week, when Cameroonian troops intervened after poachers on horseback began storming the park.
Rights groups estimate that there are now fewer than 3 000 elephants left in Cameroon.
"The fight against poaching is a war and like any other war there will be casualties," Celine Sissler Bienvenu of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) told dpa.
Poachers work in gangs and are armed with semi-automatic guns. In the most recent incident they targeted young animals with small tusks - an easier target.
"Villagers who have come into contact with the poachers were told of their plans to collect as much ivory as they can until the end of March," Bienvenu said.
The practice is fuelled by continuous demand for ivory in China and Japan. There, a kilogramme of ivory can sell for as much as 1,800 dollars. According to the Swiss-based Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the poached ivory is believed to be exchanged against money, weapons and ammunition to support conflicts in neighbouring countries.
In 2008, 108 tons of African ivory were legally shipped to North-East Asia. The following year, illicit ivory smuggling on the African continent skyrocketed. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 2011 was the biggest year for ivory smuggling in decades.
IFAW, which has sent an investigative team to the park, said the elephants are being slaughtered "with extreme violence".
Another sensitive issue
In some cases, tusks were hacked out by machete, before the elephants died. In others, elephants who returned to mourn their dead were targeted. Baby animals who had yet to grow tusks have also been found dead.
Some of the elephants killed in last week's attack were hit by bullets and may have bled to death. Sharon Redrobe, a vet who travelled to the park last week, said that they would have "experienced a long, agonising death." Others would have suffocated when their tusks were ripped out, she said.
The Bouba Ndjida National Park - home to rhinos, lions, antelope and endangered hunting dogs, as well as the threatened population of elephants - is close to Cameroon's border with Chad. Bienvenu said that Cameroonian authorities suspect that the poachers are Chadian or Sudanese nationals.
She said they mark the elephant corpses by cutting a piece of flesh from each animal's ear. The practice is common in Sudan, where pieces of elephant ears adorn poachers' necklaces.
"The elephant poaching problem in Bouba Ndjida raises another sensitive issue: that of national security and the porous border shared by Cameroon and Chad," IFAW's Bienvenu said.
The 100-strong Cameroonian contingent sent to guard the elephants are, unfortunately, no match for the heavily-armed poachers.
"This tragedy could have been averted if authorities had listened to the alarm bells earlier this year, especially since what is happening today in Bouba Ndjida is an exact repeat of what happened in Chad's Zakouma National Park between 2005 and 2009. The skill and determination of these gangs of poachers is no longer in question," Bienvenu said.
"The only way to stop these bloody attacks perpetrated against elephants in Cameroon and Africa as a whole is to eliminate the demand for ivory at the international level," she said.