YAOUNDE Poachers have killed 28 endangered forest elephants in the Nki and Lobeke national parks in southeast Cameroon in recent weeks, the conservation organization WWF said on Wednesday.
With demand for ivory rising from Asia, poachers have reduced the population of Africa's forest elephants by 62 percent over the last decade, putting the species on track for extinction, conservationists say.
The parks of southeast Cameroon, along with parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon, have some of the last significant populations of forest elephants.
"Elephants in these two protected areas in the Congo Basin are facing a threat to their existence," said Zacharie Nzooh, WWF Cameroon representative in the East Region.
Nzooh said that between February 10 and March 1, WWF found the carcasses of 23 elephants, stripped of their tusks, deep in the Nki national park. A further five were found without their tusks in the Lobeke national park, further to the east.
"The poachers used automatic weapons, such as AK-47s, reflecting the violent character of elephant poaching," he said, adding that park wardens lacked good weapons.
Smaller than its African savannah cousin, the forest elephant has straighter tusks. If urgent measures are not taken, Cameroon's forest elephants, estimated to number about 2,000, could disappear in less than a decade, Nzooh said.
Ivory sells for hundreds of dollars per kilogram on the black market. Most is smuggled to Asia, especially China, to be carved into jewelry and ornaments.
In early 2012, heavily armed poachers on horseback from Chad and Sudan massacred some 200 savannah elephants in Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida National Park.
In December, Cameroon deployed military helicopters and 600 soldiers equipped with night vision gear to try to protect the park and its wildlife.
(Reporting by Tansa Musa; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Andrew Roche)