Less than a month ago Bouba N'Djida National Park in northeastern Cameroon was home to 450 elephants. Today, at least half of those elephants are gone, slaughtered by armed horsemen who traveled hundreds of kilometers, probably from Sudan, to kill the animals for their valuable ivory tusks. So many elephants were killed during a two-week period that park officials had to stop counting the carcasses and put their resources into trying to preserve the few remaining animals.

Cameroon sent 150 soldiers into the park on March 1, but the damage had already been done. "The forces arrived too late to save most of the park's elephants, and were too few to deter the poachers," Natasha Kofoworola Quist, director of the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Central Africa program, said during a press teleconference on March 15. One soldier had been murdered by poachers by that time and at least 20 more elephants had been killed, despite the military presence. The raiders have also extended their poaching beyond the confines of the park, killing elephants in nearby forests.

Before this slaughter began, the park held 95 percent of Cameroon's savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana), representing 80 percent 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).

According to Richard Carroll, vice president of WWF U.S. Africa Programs, the Sudanese raiders travel more than 1,000 kilometers through Chad and the Central African Republic, where they have already wiped out all of those countries' elephants, to get to Cameroon's animals. It's a journey that has been made for decades, but the meter-long spears they used three decades ago have been replaced with automatic weapons, enabling indiscriminate and more efficient kills. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which visited the park in early March, the poachers have slaughtered both adult and juvenile infant elephants, often hacking off their trunks and tusks with machetes while the animals were still alive. The bodies of infant elephants too young to even have tusks have also been found.

It is expected that the poachers will soon travel back to Sudan, carrying the ivory on horseback and on camels, where they will be sold in the markets at Khartoum before heading to their most likely destination: China. There, the tusks will be carved and sold around the world, despite the fact that the international ivory trade has been banned since 1988. The money raised in the Khartoum markets will likely be used to buy more weapons, further feeding the civil war that plagues that country.

As Quist said during the teleconference, "This is not just a wildlife issue, and it is not just a Cameroon issue. This is a global issue."

Bouba N'Djida National Park is not normally protected and its rangers are unarmed. Cameroon has unprotected, "porous" borders with Chad, the Central African Republic and other nations.

WWF has asked Cameroon to take whatever steps necessary to protect the remaining elephants in the park, and to engage the governments of Chad and Sudan to prosecute the border-crossing criminals.

The Daily Mail has several graphic photos of the slain elephants here. (The images may be disturbing to some readers.)

Previously in Extinction Countdown: Poaching and Ivory Smuggling at Record Highs in 2011

Photo: Elephants in Gorom, Cameroon, by the Center for International Forestry Research via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license. Detail of Africa map via Wikimedia Commons