By Aja Harris
Deep inside Cameroon's Lobeke National Park a team of conservationists venture into the lush rainforest, weaving their way through the bush's narrow paths.
Tasked with patrolling the immense park, these eco-guards are on a mission to protect its pristine habitat and the life that resides within. Ever alert, they push deeper into the woods to prevent any illegal activities that could put Lobeke's fragile ecosystem in danger.
Amongst the park's wide array of creatures, there's one species that's particularly vulnerable.
"The major threat is elephant poaching for ivory," says Zacharie Nzooh, who joined the World Wildlife Fund more than 10 years ago.
"There was a big elephant population here," he recalls. "When I first arrived here in 2002, I saw 35 elephants at once. But progressively, despite the efforts put in place to fight poaching, the elephant population continues to dwindle. So we steadily saw their population fall -- [from] seeing 35 elephants on one occasion to seeing only four, three, two or one elephant at a time."
Over the past decade, conservationists say poachers have shrunk Africa's forest elephant population by 62%, threatening the magnificent mammals with eventual extinction. At last count, Cameroon had some of the world's last significant populations of forest elephants, with about 20,000 of them remaining.
The main purpose of Nzooh's team is to deter poachers through their presence, as well as arrest any illegal hunters. Last year the patrols arrested 16 poachers in Lobeke, which is situated in southeast Cameroon, within the Congo Basin forest.
But even as eco-guards intensify their efforts, poachers are getting hungrier for ivory; the precious commodity is selling for hundreds, even thousands of dollars per kilogram on the black market. The lucrative poaching market has been built on high demand from Asia, attracting organized criminals who are increasingly using more sophisticated methods in their illegal activities.
Saving the African forest elephant Tracking earth's largest land mammal Ivory demand fuels elephant poaching "These crimes are committed because of the elephant tusks, which are sold to big traders within the community," says eco-guard Simon Pierre Mpouop. "The traders go and sell the ivory at higher prices in other big towns. This explains why it has become a recurrent activity in Lobeke." More....