Durban - Gunmen allied to the Seleka rebel group, who killed 13 South African soldiers six weeks ago in the Central African Republic (CAR), have started to massacre forest elephants in a World Heritage Site.
Rod Cassidy, a South African tour operator who fled the CAR by boat the day after the military coup, said he had received information that a group of at least 17 heavily armed men entered the Dzanga-Sangha national park this week. Gunfire was heard on Tuesday night.
The gunmen appeared to be targeting forest elephants at Dzanga-Bai, a world-famous forest clearing and salt-lick where elephants gather every night.
A former Durban man, Cassidy set up a tourism lodge in the elephant sanctuary four years ago. He fled from the park with his wife and son on March 24, shortly after the Seleka rebel group entered Bangui, the capital of the republic.
He said he received a letter from park officials on Tuesday saying that rebel Sudanese gunmen linked to the Seleka group had entered the park early this week and camped next to Dzanga Bai.
“Gunshots were heard throughout the night. The situation is very worrying for the future of our heritage,” a senior park official pleaded in an e-mail.
“The government is aware of the massacres. Please put pressure on the NGOs and other partners to save the situation.”
Dzanga-Sangha national park, in the south-western corner of the country bordering Cameroon and the Republic of Congo, was declared part of a three-nation World Heritage Site last year.
Officials at the World Heritage Centre in Paris could not be reached for comment on Tuesday night. Late last week, however, Unesco director-general Irina Bokova voiced “deep concern” about the looming threat to the park’s population of forest elephants, gorillas and bongo antelope.
Noting that almost 30 000 elephants were being shot for ivory every year across Africa, Bokova said her organisation was alarmed by the surge in elephant poaching in central Africa and she noted that there had been a series of attacks by armed men in the vicinity of Dzanga-Sangha in recent weeks.
The park has more than 3 000 forest elephants, whose “pink” ivory is prized in Japan.
Cassidy fled with his wife, Tamar, and 23-year-old son, Alon, on March 24 after receiving word that rebel soldiers were getting close to the park’s nearest village, Bayanga.
“We were going to stay on after conservation staff from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) had left. But then we heard that things were getting hot nearby and we jumped into my boat and went five hours downriver into the Congo and hired a car to get to Brazzaville.
“We didn’t have visas but officials told us it was not a problem because we were refugees of war,” he said.
Cassidy, who will be visiting the Tourism Indaba in Durban later this week to market his lodge, said he was anxious to return to Dzanga-Sangha as soon as the situation was brought under control.
“I’m told that our lodge is still intact, but several properties have been pillaged and the situation is still too unstable to go back at the moment.”
The WWF confirmed last night that poachers had entered the park on Monday “threatening to cause one of the biggest elephant massacres in the region since poachers killed at least 300 elephants for their ivory in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park in February 2012”.
According to WWF sources, the group of 17 armed men presented themselves as part of CAR’s transitional government forces (Seleka) on Monday and asked for directions to Dzanga Bai, locally known as the “village of elephants”, a large clearing where between 50 and 200 elephants congregate every day.
Two park ecoguards reported that the men, carrying AK47 assault rifles, then climbed on a viewing tower at Dzanga Bai.
Jim Leape, WWF international director-general, said: “Unless swift and decisive action is taken, it appears highly likely that poachers will take advantage of the chaos and instability in the country to slaughter the elephants in this unique World Heritage Site.
“CAR has to immediately follow through on its promise of two weeks ago to mobilise troops to end poaching in the region. WWF also calls on the international community to immediately provide assistance to CAR in restoring peace and order in the country.” - The Mercury