Fears of forest elephant slaughter in Central Africa
A heavily armed gang has killed an unknown number of elephants at a world heritage site in the Central African Republic.
WWF says that ivory poachers were seen using a scientist's observation platform to shoot the animals, which gather there in large numbers.
The campaigners say they are extremely worried about the elephants in Dzanga-Ndoki national park.
Conservationists have also expressed grave concern about the animals' fate.
The Dzanga-Ndoki park is located in the south-western corner of the Central African Republic (CAR), where it borders Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. It is described as a unique habitat for forest elephants in particular.
On Monday, WWF issued a warning that a group of 17 individuals, some armed with heavy-calibre rifles, had entered the park and was heading for the Dzanga-bai, an area known locally as the "village of elephants".
Up to 200 elephants are said to gather here daily to drink mineral salts present in the sands.
Local guards told WWF that they saw armed men using the Dzanga-bai observation platform to shoot the animals. The platform is normally used by scientists and tourists.
"We know that there was a lot of Kalashnikov fire over the last couple of days, and into the night," said Dr Anna Feistner, of WWF, who has been based in the area for the past three years.
"We now know the guys have left. Our belief is that elephants have been killed but we don't yet know the scale."
'Wound in heart of Africa'
Dr Feistner said she believed the raiders were Sudanese ivory poachers who have been trying to operate in the area for some time and were now simply taking advantage of the lawless state of the country.
The CAR has been described as the "wound in the heart of Africa". The Seleka rebel group seized power this year but disorder and violence continue.
The elephant raid has also alarmed international conservation authorities. The secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) said it was a worrying situation.
"This imminent threat to elephants in a remote and relatively well-protected area is of grave concern to Cites," said John E. Scanlon.
"I call on the international community to join forces and take co-ordinated action to avoid a new tragedy of similar proportions to the massive killing of elephants that occurred in Cameroon in 2012."
Mr Scanlon was referring to attacks in Bouba N'Djida national park a year ago that left at least 300 elephants dead.
African countries have seen a serious spike in the illegal killing of elephants. The amount of seized ivory is said to be at the highest level in 16 years.
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