Cameroon: Military action to save Cameroon’s elephants is too little too late

Fighting between government troops and ivory poachers in the northern Bouba Ndjidda reserve has killed a soldier and a smuggler and left four wounded, according to local officials.

Kofoworola Quist, director director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Central Africa programme said the WWF has for years been warning Cameroon that its game rangers are not properly trained or equipped to address the scale, intensity and organized nature of the poaching.

Agence France Presse quoted an official working for a non-governmental organisation in Garoua, the main town in the region where the national park lies, as confirming that a soldier had been killed.  The man asked not to be named, but said the dead soldier was believed to be a member of the elite Rapid Intervention Battalion.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on March 6th reported on its website the discovery of hundreds of elephant carcasses in the Cameroon park, all of them missing their tusks.

“This is the worst poaching massacre that I can recall in the decades we have worked to save elephants in Africa,” said Allard Blom, managing director of WWF’s Congo Basin programme.

“Poaching is escalating because of a growing demand for ivory from Asia and if we fail to take immediate action in the face of such plunder, then (many) of Africa’s elephants could disappear forever to satisfy human greed.” The WWF said the smugglers appeared to come from Sudan via Chad in highly organised and heavily armed gangs, seeking to build up a stock of “vast quantities of ivory for the Asian markets.”

More than 100 soldiers were deployed on March 1st to battle the smugglers but arrived too late – at least half of the park’s elephants had already been killed.

Wildlife activists blame China’s growing footprint in Africa for an unprecedented surge in poaching elephants for their tusks. Most are believed to be smuggled to China and Thailand to make ivory ornaments.

Growing demand for ivory in China is “the leading driver behind the illegal trade in ivory today,” said Tom Milliken, an elephant and rhino expert for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. China has a legal ivory market that is supposed to be highly controlled but tons of illegal ivory has made its way there in recent years, said the Zimbabwe-based Milliken, who spoke in a conference call with several World Wildlife Fund officers.

Chinese middlemen among new immigrants to Africa have “cornered the market” for poached ivory, offering prices that have put thousands of Central African ivory carvers out of work. Ivory sales are banned in most countries since the 1980s under an international treaty to help conserve elephants.

The Extinction Countdown blog argued that the Cameroon elephant massacre showed that poaching and the ivory trade required an international response. Before this slaughter began, the park held 95% of Cameroon’s savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana), representing 80%  of that species’ remaining population in all of central Africa. The country also holds an estimated 1,500 to 5,000 forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). Extinction Countdown also carried a report on the escalation of ivory smuggling.

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