updated 3/31/2009 4:32:14 AM ET 2009-03-31T08:32:14

Two Sumatran elephants used to patrol protected forests were killed with single shots to the head each, Indonesian wildlife officials said Tuesday. The carcasses were found near their rangers' camp.

The motive of the attack deep in the jungle at the edge of Kerinci National Park was still being investigated, but the gunmen appeared to be professional poachers, said provincial conservation chief Andi Basrul. Park rangers ride the elephants while searching for illegal loggers and poachers.

They may have been hired by illegal loggers, who have been clearing the country's rain forests at an alarming rate to make way for plantations for oil palm, which is used to make candy, cosmetics and to meet growing demands for "clean-burning" fuel in the United States and Europe.

The timber is sold for construction and furniture, often destined for international export markets.

Basrul said the Sumatran elephants — believed to number at less than 3,000 in the wild — were both 20-year-old females. They were apparently killed early last week after patrolling the park on Sumatra island as rangers were sleeping.

Rangers found their bodies last Tuesday morning, several hundred yards from camp.

"It is a big blow to our efforts to protect these endangered animals," Basrul said.

The habitats of Sumatran elephants are quickly shrinking due to illegal logging and land clearing. That has led, increasingly, to clashes with humans. Twenty of the animals live in Seblat Elephant Training Center in the park, of which four were used for patrols.

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