Elephant poaching is on the rise in the Central African Republic because of insecurity that followed a coup last month, according to conservationists in the region.
The World Wildlife Fund says elephant meat is being sold in markets in southwestern CAR, a troubling sign of increased poaching.
Bas Huijbregts, head of policy for WWF in the region, says the trouble started after the rebel coalition known as Seleka overran the government in March, and seized control of the capital.
"Because of this power vacuum created, because of this civil war situation in the last few weeks, elephant poaching has dramatically increased," he said.
The reports are coming from towns and cities near the Dzanga Sangha protected areas, a park system spanning three countries, and home to one of the world’s largest populations of forest elephants.
In a visit to the park last year, VOA saw first-hand a gathering of about 50 elephants in a clearing in the forest - a natural wonder that appears in few other places. Conservationists had, at the time, expressed concerns about poachers in the area, and were training armed guards to combat the threat.
WWF says it is difficult to determine the exact number of elephants killed since the Seleka takeover.
The organization’s offices in the Bayanga area have been raided three times by rebels, forcing staff members to relocate. Armed rangers have remained behind to protect the park.
Huijbregts says a local Seleka splinter group is to blame for the insecurity, and says WWF is calling on the rebel leadership in the capital to step in.
"So what we are asking for from the authorities in Bangui is to, as soon as possible re-establish rule of law in the area, first of all for the people of Bayanga and the surrounding villages, but also to basically safeguard their last remaining, intact world heritage site in Central African Republic," said Huijbregts.
A group of eight conservation organizations meeting in Congo-Brazzaville signed a set of recommendations for the president and prime ministers of central Africa to help stop wildlife crime.
In a communiqué issued Friday the group called for tougher penalties for poachers and “zero-tolerance” for corruption and abuse of power.
Trafficking in African ivory, rhino horns and other wildlife products has increased dramatically in the last decade, due mostly to rising demand from consumers in Asia.