The densely-forested country is home to about half the world’s roughly 100,000 remaining forest elephants, the smallest species and one coveted by ivory dealers for their harder and straighter tusks.
A study conducted by Gabon’s government along with advocacy groups World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society found two-thirds of the forest elephants in Minkebe park had been killed off since 2004, or about 11,100. “If we don’t reverse this situation rapidly, the future of elephants in Africa will be compromised,” Lee White, executive secretary of Gabon’s national parks agency, said in a statement issued by Gabon’s presidency yesterday.
Demand for ivory for use in jewellery and ornamental items is rising fast in Asia. Conservationists say growing Chinese influence and investment in Africa has opened the door wider for the illicit trade in tusks.
A park official said most of the poachers were believed to be from neighbouring Cameroon, where the government has deployed helicopters and hundreds of troops to protect its dwindling elephant population.
Gabon security forces last week arrested at least one gendarme who was transporting tusks in a government vehicle, underlining the risk of corruption in an increasingly lucrative black market trade.
Cameroon deployed about 600 troops to its Bouba Ndjida National Park, a former safari tourism destination, late last year to combat horse-mounted Sudanese poachers who killed up to 450 elephants in 2011 and 2012.
In 2011, an estimated 40 tonnes of illegal ivory were seized worldwide, representing thousands of dead elephants. Figures for 2012 are expected to be similar, according to conservation group, Traffic.
Ivory smuggling has also been linked to conflict. Last year, the United Nations Security Council called for an investigation into the alleged involvement in the trade of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda.
Led by warlord Joseph Kony, who is being hunted by an African Union and US-backed military force, the LRA is accused of abducting children to use as fighters and sex slaves.