An "extensive" slaughter of elephants appears to be underway in the Central African Republic with reports of their meat being sold openly in markets, according to activists.
Rebel fighters pushed into Bangui, the capital of the impoverished but mineral-rich country, in March and ousted President Francois Bozize.
In a joint statement issued Thursday, the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society said poachers were exploiting the chaotic situation to kill elephants and called for “immediate action” to stop them.
The statement said that “the exact number of elephants slaughtered is not known, however initial reports indicate it may be extensive.”
“WWF has confirmed information that forest elephants are being poached near the Dzanga-Sangha protected areas, a World Heritage Site,” the statement said.
“Elephant meat is reportedly being openly sold in local markets and available in nearby villages. The security situation is preventing park staff from searching the dense forest for elephant carcasses,” it added.
The statement said that up to 30,000 elephants are killed in Africa each year for their ivory tusks, which are in demand in Asia.
WWF and WCS called on the Central African Republic and its neighbors to increase security in the area to protect the elephants and local people.
Jim Leape, WWF’s director general, said “heroic rangers” in the CAR were “standing firm in the face of immense danger,” but added that they needed more help.
“The elephant poaching crisis – driven by insatiable ivory demand – is so severe that no area is safe,” he said.
Staff from WWF and WCS have been forced to evacuate because of the ongoing violence. WWF said its offices in Dzanga-Sangha had been looted three times in the past month.
Dzanga-Sangha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to 3,400 forest elephants, smaller than their cousins on the African savannah with straighter, slimmer tusks, according to Reuters.
Eight conservation organizations working in the Congo Basin have called on the African countries to build up their links with China and Thailand, two of Asia's biggest ivory importers, to find a solution to the crisis, the news service said. Representatives from the region's governments will meet next week to discuss the proposals.
Rhinos have already been hunted to extinction in the region, Reuters reported, because of the demand for their horns for Asian medicinal concoctions.
Reuters contributed to this report.