ABIDJAN — The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says time is running out for Central African nations to track down a group of Sudanese poachers accused of slaughtering hundreds of elephants in just the past two years.
But lack of coordination among countries in the region, the wildlife advocacy group says, is making it difficult to track roughly 300 heavily armed Sudanese poachers who travel on horseback and are believed to be hunting down elephants in the savanna regions of Cameroon, Chad and Central African Republic.
In one attack last month, the poachers allegedly killed 89 elephants in southern Chad. The group is also suspected of slaughtering around 300 elephants in Cameroon in early 2012 — a massacre that brought global attention to the dangers facing the region’s savanna elephants.
It has been three weeks since the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) convened a high-level regional meeting in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, to plan a coordinated response.
Cameroon has deployed 600 specialized troops to combat the problem on its soil. At the conference, regional leaders said they would mobilize up to 1,000 soldiers and law enforcement officers for the effort. They also vowed to establish a central command so that forces from different countries could communicate and share intelligence.
But Bas Huijbregts, head of WWF’s campaign against illegal wildlife trade in Central Africa, said the poachers are expected to return to Sudan in just a few weeks as the dry season draws to a close, meaning there is not much time to track them down. He said this week there had been little evident progress on establishing the central command, and doubted the efforts would begin in time.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a joint command at least for this dry season. That is the biggest weakness for the moment," he said. "These countries are basically all blind on the other side of the border, so they do not know when poachers are nearing their borders and they don’t have agreements to be able to pursue poachers from one side of the border to the other.”
The emergency plan approved by the conference last month was expected to cost around $2.3 million.
Honoré Tabuna, the ECCAS official in charge of the effort, says although some progress has been made in getting the central command up and running, recent instability in Central African Republic has delayed signing of a draft decision to establish a regional anti-poaching unit, a decision he expects to be signed Monday.
Huijbregts says that while the issue of the Sudanese poachers has received large-scale attention since only last year, the group has long wreaked havoc across the region.
"These poachers have been active in this region already for a very, very long time and have basically exterminated elephant populations in the north and in the east of Central African Republic," he said. "That is why they are currently now looking for remaining elephant herds in Cameroon and in Chad."
WWF estimates that the number of savanna elephants in Central African Republic has plunged over the last 30 years from 80,000 to just a few hundred.
Huijbregts says specialized training would be necessary to successfully combat the poachers, who he described as very dangerous.
"These hunters are military trained and likely have been doing, from generation to generation, massive elephant poaching on horseback," he said. "Those are the people that know these remote savannah areas really by heart. They know how to make camouflaged camps. They know how to back each other up on horseback. Having close encounters with these poachers is indeed a very dangerous situation given the fact that these poachers, they shoot on sight, and has already resulted in the past in people being wounded and killed on both sides."