(CNN) – Poachers in search of ivory in northern Cameroon have slaughtered nearly 300 elephants for their tusks since mid-January, according to the country’s minister of forestry and wildlife.
Minister Ngole Philip Ngwese backed up a claim by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) that an armed gang of Sudanese poachers had killed the free-roaming elephants in the Bouba Ndjida National Park, on Cameroon’s border with Chad.
Park officials say many orphaned elephant calves have been spotted, and concerns are high the babies may soon die of hunger and thirst.
One park official, Bouba Jadi, told CNN the deaths are worsening the situation for Cameroon’s already threatened elephant populations. According to official estimates, there are between 1,000 and 5,000 elephants in Cameroon.
Officials on a tour Monday saw at least 100 elephant carcasses. More carcasses are expected to be found in unexplored regions of the national park. A massive crackdown on poachers has been launched, according to officials in the west Central African nation.
“It was common for armed gangs of poachers to cross from Sudan during the dry season to kill elephants for their ivory. But this latest massacre is massive and has no comparison to those of the preceding years,” IFAW official Celine Sissler Bienvenu told a local newspaper, The Voice.
She added that the ivory is smuggled out of West and Central Africa for markets in Asia and Europe, and money from ivory sales funds arms purchases for use in regional conflicts, particularly ongoing unrest in Sudan and in the Central African Republic.
Cameroon shares a porous border with Chad. Armed insurgents from Sudan and the Central African Republic seeking elephants frequently travel through Chad.
Observers in Cameroon have been blaming the raids on poorly trained and ill-equipped park guards, who are pitted against professional gangs of poachers.