More than 11,000 elephants have been killed by ivory poachers in Gabon since 2004 according to new research.
The country is home to over half of Africa’s forest elephants who are highly valued because of the quality of their tusks.
Campaigners say the situation in what was believed to be a safe haven for these elephants is “out of control.”
They blame the ongoing high demand for jewellery and other ivory products in Asia.
Gabon holds about 13% of the forests of Central Africa but it is home to around 40,000 forest elephants, a smaller species that are attractive to poachers because their ivory is tinged with pink and is very hard.
The new research has been carried out by the Gabonese national parks agency (ANPN) alongside WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
Cross border poachers
Dr Fiona Maisels of the WCS explained that they had analysed the population of elephants in the Minkebe national park and compared it with their data gathered in the same area 9 years ago.
“Between 44-77% of the elephants have been killed,” she said. “In other words 11,100 elephants have been lost since 2004.”
Much of the attention on elephant poaching has been in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo but with demand for ivory growing and prices rocketing in recent years, poachers have sought out the forest elephants in the vast expanses of Minkebe.
And despite the efforts of the Gabonese government to bolster anti-poaching patrols, according to Bas Huijbregts from WWF, the authorities are failing.
“In an area like Minkebe which is about 30,000 sq km, that’s about the size of Belgium, without any roads. It is very difficult to track poachers here,” he said.
The authorities believe that between 50 and 100 elephants per day were being killed in the park in 2011. Much of the poaching has been carried out by gangs from neighbouring Cameroon, with ivory carried across the northern border by porters.
The high prices being paid for ivory in Asian markets are having a knock-on effect on attempts to control the trade in Gabon says Bas Huijbregts.
“Such a high value commodity, it is corrupting governance on all levels – there are checkpoints all over the place, but no one ever detects that ivory,” he said.
“When arrests are made, they are often obstructed by government people who have a stake in the trade as well.”
In June last year Gabon’s president Ali Bongo Ondimba ordered the burning of the country’s stockpile of seized ivory. However the poaching continues and is leading many conservationists to question the long term survival of elephants in Africa.
Professor Lee White who heads Gabon’s national park system said that despite their best efforts, the situation is running out of control.
“If we do not turn the situation around quickly, the future of the elephant in Africa is doomed,” he said. “These new results illustrate starkly just how dramatic the situation has become.”
Campaigners say that next month’s meeting of the convention on the international trade in endangered species (CITES) will be an opportunity for global governments to strengthen measures against ivory poaching.