Dzanga-Ndoki National Park located in the Central African Republic is a United Nations backed World Heritage Site. The park is known for both forest elephants and low-land gorillas. A large clearing with a mineral water lake called Dzanga Bai, or Village of Elephants, drew between 50 and 200 elephants per day.
Dzanga Bai has been a particularly wonderful place to study these elephants since they come there regularly to drink and play in the water. Andrea Turkalo, a member of the Elephant Listening Program, has studied the elephant that come to Dzanga Bai for 18 years. She has identified 3,000 individuals and many family groups.
It is not certain whether or not the forest elephant is a subspecies of the African elephant or a separate species. There are some significant differences. For instance, the forest elephant has a longer, narrower jaw, straight tusks, and more toes on its front (5 vs. 4) and back (4 vs. 3) feet. Forest elephants come in different colors. Yes, not just grey, but also red, brown, calico, and most impressive a magnificent shade of bright gold. Unfortunately for forest elephants, their straight, pink tinged tusks are harder than that of other elephants; and so are in greater demand by poachers.
The Central African Republic has been in turmoil since December 2012. In March of this year, the Seleka Rebel Coalition overthrew the government and took control, but has made no effort to do any sort of peacekeeping. More than 37,000 people have fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo, others to Chad and Cameroon.
The offices of the World Wildlife Fund have been looted so often since March of this that they have removed their personnel from the park. South Africa has withdrawn 200 of the 600 soldiers it had supplied for protecting the park. The defense minister indicated that the troops were not prepared to face poachers armed with mortars and state of the art Kalashnikov assault rifles. There is grave concern for the 3,400 forest elephants that live in the park, since poaching has become rampant. The number of elephants found in the park has declined 62% in the last ten years.
Heavily armed gunmen, who claimed to be members of the Seleka Rebel Coalition, entered the park and on May 9, 2013, and used scientific observation platforms to kill at least 26 elephants including four calves. They then hacked off the tusks and left the park. People from nearby villages salvaged the meat from the carcasses and it is being sold openly in local markets. No elephants have returned to the site since the massacre.
The demand for ivory in Thailand and China, where trading of ivory is legal, is thought to be among the reasons for the increased poaching that has occurred since March, but the lack of security in the park also provides the poachers with unique opportunities to slaughter the animals. The Prime Minister of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, has promised to change the laws concerning the trade of ivory within her country; China has also committed to banning the sale of ivory. Neither country has yet done so.
Today there are no elephants in the Elephant Village. No elephants come for water. There are no elephants to study. Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, World Heritage Site, has been desecrated.