Sudanese poachers, taking advantage of the instability in the Central African Republic, have been hunting elephants in a protected area in the southwest of the country. Rebel leaders in the capital have sent a message to the poachers demanding that they stop.
The World Wildlife Fund says 17 poachers entered Dzanga-Ndoki National Park on Monday, and have been heard firing shots from within the forest since then.
A resident in the nearby town of Bayanga confirmed the presence of poachers to VOA.
No elephants have been confirmed killed, but staff in the park have heard shots being fired from a clearing where forest elephants regularly gather, up to 200 at a time.
WWF says the poachers are linked to a splinter group of the Seleka rebel alliance that seized control of the capital Bangui in March.
The head of policy for WWF in the region, Bas Huijbregts, says on Wednesday rebel leadership in the capital sent a message to the poachers telling them to stop.
“Seleka sent apparently, via motorbike, a letter to their colleagues, the Sudanese guys, asking them to get out of the forest as soon as possible," said Huijbregts.
Huijbregts says the message was sent through another group of Seleka members who were escorting a delegation of Chinese diamond prospectors in the area.
Seleka has had trouble reining in its fighters, who are blamed for looting and assaults in the capital since the takeover. WWF says rebel elements in Bayanga have raided their offices several times in the past two months.
But now the conservationists are hoping that a joint force made of Seleka rebels and agents from the ministry for wildlife will help to restore security around the park.
Huijbregts says Seleka must be on board with the operation as the dominant military force in the country.
“It has been judged safest to have a mission that is accompanied by Seleka, given the fact that they need to pass through several Seleka operated roadblocks going to Bayanga," he said.
Sudanese poachers have been responsible for the slaughter of elephants for their tusks in CAR and neighboring Cameroon in the past.
Conservationists say African elephants are increasingly under threat from poachers due in large part to rising demand for ivory in Asia.