Armed Poachers Reportedly Raid African Elephant Sanctuary

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Elephant poachers in Central Africa were seen entering a protected area and shooting in the direction of elephants on Monday (May 6), wildlife officials reported.

A group of 17 armed poachers entered the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic in an effort to reach the Dzanga Bai, a clearing where anywhere from 50 to 200 elephants can be found, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). This area, known to locals as the "village of elephants," attracts herds of elephants who gather daily to drink mineral salts in the sands.

The Central African Republic has been plagued by political instability since the beginning of the year, and poachers in the region are taking advantage of this turmoil to fuel the ivory trade, said Jim Leape, WWF's international director general. [Elephant Images: The Biggest Beasts on Land]

"Unless swift and decisive action is taken, it appears highly likely that poachers will take advantage of the chaos and instability of the country to slaughter the elephants living in this unique World Heritage Site," Leape said in a statement. "Wildlife crime is not only a consequence of instability, but a cause. It fuels violence in the region, in a vicious circle that undermines the stability of these countries and their economic development." 

Unless they are stopped, the poachers could cause one of the biggest elephant massacres in the region since February 2012, when at least 300 elephants were killed in Cameroon's Bouba N'Djida National Park, WWF officials said. The group called on the country's government and international aid to take action to protect the elephants.

"Central African Republic has to immediately follow through on its promise of two weeks ago to mobilize troops to end poaching in the region," Leape said. "WWF also calls on the international community to immediately provide assistance to Central African Republic in restoring peace and order in the country, and to preserve its unique natural heritage."

On Monday, two WWF-supported researchers were approached in the forest by three poachers armed with Kalashnikov rifles. The poachers asked for directions to an observation tower in the Dzanga Bai clearing that is typically used by scientists and tourists to observe the elephants.

The scientists provided false information, but heard gunshots coming from the Bai as they fled the scene, according to WWF officials.

That same day, two park guards reported seeing armed individuals on the Dzanga Bai observation platform shooting at the elephants.

WWF officials are hoping to save the elephants by drawing attention to the dire situation in Africa, they said.

"We also urge Cameroon and Republic of Congo to provide support to the Central African Republic in preserving this World Heritage site, which not only encompasses the Bai, but also includes large neighboring areas of these two countries," Leape added. "Finally, ivory consumer country governments, and notably China and Thailand, must redouble their efforts to end demand — the root cause of the extermination of elephants across Africa."

Follow Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com.

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