By Emma Farge
DAKAR (Reuters) - About a fifth of Mali's rare desert elephants have been killed this year as ivory poachers exploit a security vacuum in the country's north, the United Nations said on Thursday.
At least 57 elephants died between January and June among the West African country's only herd of around 300 animals, the U.N. peacekeeping mission MINUSMA said in a statement.
"(The poached elephants) represent about 20 percent of the remaining (Malian) population and were killed in areas where insecurity is present," MINUSMA said, adding that forest rangers were frequently targeted by Islamist jihadists.
The WILD Foundation, which helps protect Mali's northern Gourma herd, estimates that around 90 of the mammals have been killed since late 2014.
Tens of thousands of elephants once roamed the savannahs stretching between West Africa's shores and the Nile basin but poaching and habitat loss have dramatically cut their numbers.
Roughly 7,000 animals are thought to remain in West and Central Africa, of which some are thought to be genetically distinct from the more numerous elephants further south. They are often scattered in small, isolated groups of less than 100 and are at risk of local extinction.
Mali's Gourma elephants, once a magnet for tourists visiting the nearby desert city of Timbuktu, are one of the last two desert herds in the world. The other is in Namibia.
The decline in Mali has accelerated in recent months because of rising insecurity and a decrease in army protection, according to Amy Lewis from WILD Foundation.
Armed groups drove the Malian army out of many posts in the country's north last year and are fighting amongst each other for control of land and trafficking corridors.
Clashes have continued despite a U.N.-backed peace deal agreed in June.
(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Toni Reinhold)