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Forest elephants under threat of extinction

Xinhua | Updated: 2012-09-11 10:04

YAOUNDE - Cameroon's forest elephants could disappear from the wild within eight years if no urgent measure is taken to combat international illicit ivory trade and curb habitat loss, a senior official of the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF) has warned.

It followed the seizure on August 29 of 23 tusks from poachers on- the-run at Messok, a locality in east Cameroon. This seizure came after the confiscation of 89 tusks in June and July on the outskirts of the Dja and Campo-Ma'an forest reserves close to the border with the Republic of Congo and Gabon.

"This is an indication that at least 56 forest elephants were massacred in southeastern Cameroon within three months," Julien Desire Mbelley, MINFOF delegate for the South Region, said over the weekend.

"The number could even be much higher because forest guards in these two reserves say they have come across several carcasses of this huge wild beast without their tusks, which means they were also dismantled and carried away," Mbelley said.

"Our forest elephants are under very serious threat. They are declining in huge numbers every passing day, weeks and months of the year because of the booming lucrative international illegal trade in ivory," said Mbelley.

Statistics in 2008 put the forest elephant population at 140, 000 in the Congo Basin in general and 15,000 in Cameroon (12,000 in the east region and 3,000 in the southwest), which had fallen by about 75 percent compared to 40 years ago. Only a few of them are in protected areas while the vast majority roam in the wild jungle and are difficult to monitor and know the exact number.

Environmentalists blamed growing demand for ivory from Asia for the pressure on the forest elephants in recent decades.

"The situation is aggravated by deforestation and loss of their natural habitat due to growing human population, the majority of whom are farmers seeking more land to grow both cash and food crops. They access deep into the heart of the jungle thanks to increasing logging and mining companies that dig up roads," added the MINFOF delegate.

Moreover, he stated, there is an involvement of soldiers from countries in this border area including particularly Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), and Congo and to a certain extent Gabon.

"Villagers tell us that the soldiers not only loan their more sophisticated weapons, including Kalashnikovs (AK47 assault rifles) to poachers to facilitate killing of the animals, but also take part in hunting during non-working hours," said the official.

"Governments of all the countries concerned need to put up a common front, take urgent measures and act quickly, not only to combat the international illegal ivory trade but also contain habitat loss. If not, I am afraid that our forest elephants may be extinct within the next eight years," he concluded.

Achille Mengamenya, chief warden of the Boumba-Bek National Park in this same part of the country, also disclosed 12 poachers were arrested on the outskirts of the park and the adjoining Nki National Park in April as they tried to ship away with 57 tusks, an indication that at least 29 elephants were killed.

"A survey by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2006 estimated the number of elephants in these two protected areas at 4,000 and a preliminary investigation showed that the group of poachers operating there have very strong links with a sister group based in Souanke, north of the Congo," he said.

"With the connivance of some local people, the tusks are surreptitiously transported in cocoa and timber-carrying trucks to the port of Douala for exports," explained Mengamenya.

In February and March, hundreds of savanna elephants were massacred in the Bouba Ndjida National Park in the north region by suspected poachers from Sudan and Chad riding on horseback. The Cameroonian government deployed elements of the Rapid Intervention Unit (BIR) to the park to prevent further killings of the animals and two BIR members lost their lives during the operation.

"After the international outcry of the Bouba Ndjida massacre we think it is high time to put a stop to this senseless commercially motivated slaughter of Cameroon's biodiversity," recalled David Hoyle, conservation director of WWF Cameroon.

"If the killing is not stopped Cameroon's entire elephant population is facing great risk and could disappear within 10 years, killing off the growing wildlife-related tourism that provides extra foreign exchange earning opportunity for the country," he said.

The survival of the forest elephants in Central Africa depends on limiting access to rainforests via roads, increasing human settlements, and other entry points to otherwise inaccessible habitat, according a new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other partners.

Roads and other forms of infrastructure construction in these countries usually lack adequate, or any, anti-poaching efforts, putting the future of Africa's wild animal in peril, according to the study.

"The proliferation of access points to formerly remote, inaccessible areas is devastating to elephants and other wide- ranging species," warned Dr. Charles Yackulic, member of the group that carried out the study.

Unfortunately, still little is being done to improve the geographical infrastructure planning at local, national and regional levels, the study regretted.

"This latest study underscores the fact that time is running out to do things right. The good news is that there is a tiny window of opportunity still available to develop the Central African interstate highway system in a strategic way that maximizes social benefits to people while minimizing ecological impacts like fragmentation and access proliferation...Like so many environmental issues we could have pretty decent win-win for wildlife and people if only the world is prepared to pay a little more," stated former WCS official, Dr. Steve Blake.

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