By DIVINE NTARYIKE, RUKMINI CALLIMACHI
DOUALA, Cameroon (AP) — Cameroon has launched a military offensive to flush out elephant poachers from a remote national park in the country's northeast near the border with Chad.
Defense Minister Alain Mebe Ngo'o announced the operation on state television late Thursday, saying that the country needed to take action against the poachers believed to be from Sudan.
In just eight weeks, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that the poachers have decimated the elephant population, killing between 200 and 300 of the roughly 400 elephants in the Bouba N'Djida National Park.
The wildlife group said in a statement released Friday that the military operation was launched Wednesday night after a high-level meeting between the minister of defense and the minister in charge of wildlife. The group cited unnamed sources confirming that over 100 Cameroonian soldiers had entered the park on Thursday to secure the area from poachers.
According to the wildlife group, the heavily armed poachers entered Cameroonian territory illegally via the border with Chad in order to harvest the ivory.
"The poachers, who are reportedly Arabic speakers traveling on horseback, are believed to be from Sudan and it is widely speculated that the vast volumes of ivory are destined for Asian markets," said the WWF.
The government has been under pressure to take action from both environmental groups and the European Union, ever since graphic images of the slaughtered elephants were published.
"We saw this situation coming," said Basile Yapo Monssan, the WWF country director. "We have consistently alerted the government on the alarming growing rate of poaching in Cameroon. This is their wake-up call," Yapo says.
In 2010, WWF wrote a letter to the prime minister saying that drastic measures were needed to stop the crossborder poaching. In 2011, a group of 12 ambassadors followed up with a second letter.
Lamine Sebogo, the group's elephant coordinator, said that northern Cameroon's elephant population represents 80 percent of the total population of savanna elephants in all of Central Africa.
"Any remaining elephant population remains at high risk until military forces are able to secure the area," said the WWF. "It is absolutely vital that the (military) exercise is not a publicity stunt — the poachers must be engaged, arrested and prosecuted to send out a strong message."
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.