DAKAR, Senegal (AP) -- Elephant meat is flooding food markets in villages near a famed wildlife reserve in Central African Republic one month after rebels believed to be involved in poaching overthrew the government, conservationists said Thursday.
The Dzanga-Sangha reserve in the rainforests of southwestern Central African Republic has been home to more than 3,400 forest elephants and features a world-renowned clearing where dozens gather each day.
Now the political chaos unleashed by a rebellion that overthrew Central African Republic's president of a decade has enabled elephant poachers to further their slaughter.
"Elephant poaching is on the increase and given the fact that Central African Republic for the moment is also in dire straits we are fearing for the worst in terms of people trying to look seriously for ivory," said Bas Huijbregts, head of policy for WWF's campaign against poaching in Central Africa.
Elephant meat is now being openly sold not only in the town of Bayanga near the reserve, but also in surrounding villages near the protected wildlife area, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, he said.
"Given the total absence of any type of law enforcement and rule of law in the area, there is elephant meat all over the place," he said.
At least 40 elephants have been slain at Dzanga-Sangha since the rebels took power on March 24, said local residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the rebels operating in the area.
However, WWF said it was impossible to estimate how many animals may have been killed because there are currently no patrols going on in the forest to determine where the elephant carcasses may be.
Central African Republic's forest elephants have faced growing threats in recent years from Sudanese hunters on horseback who are making their way further and further south.
The poachers are used to killing elephants in savannah terrain though experts say they are increasingly adapting their methods to hunt elephants in the forest terrain of southern Central African Republic and in neighboring Cameroon.
The Sudanese hunters are now working in tandem with armed rebels from the group known as Seleka, which now has seized control of the federal government, anti-poaching rangers who have fled rebel-controlled areas told The Associated Press.
At least one notorious poacher has declared himself the local representative for Seleka.
Poachers are making greater inroads because of the near-anarchic state that has emerged in many parts of the country since President Francois Bozize was forced from power. Bozize, who himself took control in 2003 after a rebellion, fled into exile as thousands of armed rebels descended upon the capital in late March.
While their leader Michel Djotodia has been chosen to lead a transitional government, critics say he wields very little control over the rebels, who came together from several different groups with a common goal of ousting Bozize.
The rebels are blamed for rampant looting of hospitals and aid groups in the capital, and WWF said it has also had to evacuate its staff from the Dzanga-Sangha reserve after armed rebels looted their offices several times.
WWF said it is working with park staffers who have remained behind to try to secure the key areas inside the reserve despite threats to their personal safety. Those efforts may not be enough to protect elephants though if the situation continues to deteriorate.
"The worst case scenario that we could imagine," said Huijbregts of WWF, "is there would be no change in rule of law, and total anarchy would install itself."
Associated Press writer Jose Richard Pouamba in Bangui, Central African Republic, contributed to this report.