Despite recent attempts by soldiers in Cameroon to stop the mass slaughter of elephants, poachers are continuing to kill the animals in record numbers, the World Wildlife Fund said Thursday.
Tons of tusks are being moved on camels and horses from Africa mostly to buyers willing to pay high prices in China and Thailand, said Tom Milliken, the director of the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.
"Elephants represent an opportunity to gain money, and because there are ready buyers in most capital cities, the word is out there," Milliken said. "[There has been] an increased poaching assault like we haven't seen in two decades."
Poachers who recently killed at least 100 elephants in Cameroon's Bouba N'Djida National Park are reportedly from Chad and Sudan, the WWF said.
Unlike decades past when poachers across the continent ran down elephants using spears, the attackers are now highly organized and armed with sophisticated weapons. Many have used grenade launchers and high-powered rifles, allowing them to kill with greater ease and outgun police and military trying to stop them, said Richard Carroll, the WWF's Africa Program director. He has spent decades building an expertise in the Central African Republic.
He says he first fell in love with the region in the 1980s as a Peace Corps volunteer. Carroll said poachers obtained more automatic weapons during that era, when conflicts in Chad and Sudan began flaring. Many people involved with the ivory trade are forced to participate, oppressed over the years by warring sects, extreme poverty and fear of retribution if they don't do as they're told, he said.
There are several market-driven reasons for the increase in illegal ivory trade lately, experts with the WWF and Traffic said.
China has a legal ivory market that its government has said is highly controlled. Milliken, however, said China's system isn't strong enough.
Chinese customs officials generally target for inspection container shipments coming from Africa, but middlemen in the ivory trade are forging documents, making it appear that containers are from Malaysia or the Philippines to avoid inspection, he added. Ivory is also being hidden on trucks traveling across borders that carry legitimate goods like timber, he said.
Milliken said Chinese immigrants who have moved to Africa have "cornered the market" and are "bent" on making a quick buck by selling ivory.
Traffic is launching a campaign to help spread the word against poaching in African nations and in countries that are receiving ivory, Milliken said. Posters alerting people to the problem are being created in Chinese, English and various African languages.
But Milliken warns that the campaign can only go so far in reducing poaching. He wants the government of China to be more supportive, including sending law enforcement to Africa to help interrogate Chinese nationals arrested for the trade and to help with investigations by examining confiscated computers and cell phones that contain information in Chinese, he said.