* Central African forest elephants risk extinction
* Asian demand, widespread logging, more weapons to blame
* Forest elephant ivory especially prized
By Tansa Musa
YAOUNDE, April 26 (Reuters) - Forest elephants in Cameroon and the Congo Basin could be extinct within 10 years without measures to fight the illegal ivory trade and curb habitat loss, a WWF official said in an interview.
During the last 40 years, environmentalists estimate the forest elephant population has fallen 75 percent, standing at some 140,000 for the Congo Basin and 13,000-15,000 for Cameroon.
Only about 9 percent of the elephants in Cameroon and 33 percent in the region are inside protected areas, while the vast majority roam in the wild jungle and are difficult to monitor.
Environmentalists blame growing demand for ivory from Asia, particularly the emerging economies of China and India, for the pressure on the forest elephants in recent years.
"Cameroon forest elephants, and I would say elephants in all the Congo Basin rainforest, are under very serious threat. In fact the threat has never been as high as it is today," Martin Tchamba, WWF Cameroon country director told Reuters on Friday.
"They are declining in large numbers every day due to the booming lucrative international illicit trade in ivory and the disappearance of their habitat. If governments in the region do not take urgent measures to combat the illicit trade and habitat loss, they could be extinct within the next 10 years," he said.
A report in the local bi-weekly The Post said game guards confiscated 60 tusks from poachers in Cameroon’s Boumba-Ngoko division in 2008 and have taken 20 since the start of 2009.
But environmentalists in the country believe the figure could be much higher, because control and monitoring are difficult and not very effective in the area’s thick jungle, while game guards are few and poorly equipped.
LOGGING, MINING AND WEAPONS
"Thousands of elephants are killed every year to meet rising demand. The region is the principal source of ivory on the world market, supplying about 80 percent of the demand," said Tchamba.
"There is a preference for ‘hard’ forest ivory from Central African range countries including Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo Republic, Gabon and the DRC," he said.
Tchamba said the trade was fuelled by logging and mining companies building roads that open up access to the primary forest, the last strongholds for elephants. In the last two years, 60 permits have been granted for Boumba-Ngoko, a region thought to hold rich iron ore, gold and uranium deposits.
"Through their activities, these companies encroach on protected areas and decimate vast expanses of forests, resulting in the serious fragmentation of the habitat of this flagship animal species," said Tchamba.
Poachers are also using more sophisticated weapons such as AK47 assault rifles, making it hard for local game park wardens to take them on. The weapons are freely available in a region with porous borders and conflicts in neighbouring countries.
"The massive circulation of war arms is boosting elephant poaching. We recently confiscated a Kalashnikov and a grenade from poachers. This is a new phenomenon we are trying to get to grips with in this region," said Eitel Pandong, the government delegate for Forestry and Wildlife for Boumba-Ngoko. (Editing by David Clarke)