DAKAR (Reuters) - Gunmen believed to be part of the rebel force that seized power in Central African Republic in March have killed at least 26 elephants in a raid on an internationally-protected wildlife park, campaigners said on Friday.
The slaughter underscores how poachers are taking advantage of a security void in the country and, conservationists say, feeding a growing Asian demand for ivory that is threatening populations of forest elephants across the region.
Earlier this week, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said gunmen who had identified themselves as members of the Seleka rebel coalition had entered the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park and headed towards a clearing called Dzanga Bai, or Village of Elephants.
The WWF said local sources there had by Thursday counted 26 elephant carcasses, four of which were calves. The 17 gunmen had since left the area and villagers were now collecting meat from the dead animals, the organization quoted the sources saying.
"The killing has started. The Central African Republic must act immediately to secure this unique World Heritage site," Jim Leape, WWF's international director general, said in a statement.
CAR has been rocked by instability since Seleka, a coalition of northern rebel groups, swept south and chased President Francois Bozize from power.
"The international community must also act to assist the Central African Republic to restore peace and order in this country to safeguard its population and its natural heritage," Leape added.
Dzanga-Ndoki is part of the United Nations-backed Sangha Trinational world heritage site, which brings together three national parks in CAR, Cameroon and Republic of Congo.
The area is home to a wide array of endangered species, including large populations of forest elephants, lowland gorillas and chimpanzees.
Conservation organizations working in the Congo River Basin met in Brazzaville last month to propose ways for governments to tackle the rampant poaching, which claims an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 African elephants each year.
(Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)