May 6, a group of 17 heavily armed poachers in the Central African Republic (CAR), entered the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, a World Heritage Site, and killed at least 26 elephants, firing from an observation platform used by scientists and tourists.

Forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) bull drinking with trunk in mouth, in Dzanga Bai. (Photo: WWF/Carlos Drews)

The poachers left the park by the evening of May 8, their truck fully loaded with ivory. Examination of the carcasses following their retreat revealed 20 adults and six calves. All their tusks had been hacked off. An assessment of additional damage, possibly including other elephant carcasses in the surrounding forest and smaller clearings, is ongoing. The site of the massacre, Dzanga Bai, also known as the “village of elephants,” is a large clearing in the rainforest where between 50 and 150 elephants gather every day to drink at mineral-rich springs. Tourists and scientists have come to the clearing for decades to observe the normally secretive African forest elephant, a different species than the larger savannah elephants found in open country.

Elephants in Dzanga Bai (Photo: Carlos Drew/WWF)

Poachers have sought to enter the clearing for years, but conservationists had always managed to keep them at bay. The identities of these poachers are unclear but they are believed to be of Sudanese origin. They did not speak the local language. It is understood they arrived at the park in a vehicle emblazoned with the name Séléka, the new regime which overthrew CAR President François Bozizé in March. The park has armed ecoguards, but they felt outgunned by the poachers and did not take them on. Chaos has reigned in the area since the government takeover with widespread reports of looting, rapes, killings, and other human rights abuses. Although the poachers have left Dzanga Bai, there are fears the killing of elephants in the CAR may resume. Forest elephants are smaller than other species but their tusks have a pinkish hue which, unfortunately, increases their value.

Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai, CAR. (Photo: WWF)

    The carnage has reached eye-popping numbers. Poachers killed over 300 elephants in Bouba N’Djida national park in Cameroon in December. More than 30,000 elephants are being killed in Africa every year to supply the ivory trade fueled by demand in China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Driven increasingly by organized crime syndicates intent on feeding this demand, the population of forest elephants in Central Africa has declined by 62 per cent over the past decade. For the past 30 years World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the CAR government have collaborated on programs within the Dzanga–Sangha protected areas that both protect wildlife and support livelihoods for hundreds of local people. For nearly 25 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has supported efforts in the park, including funding research on the forest elephants that use Dzanga Bai.

    As of May 10, most of the park’s 42 ecoguards are back at their posts—watching and waiting.

    Sources: mongabay/National Geographic.