British troops head to West Africa to help stem elephant slaughter
British soldiers have been sent to West Africa to tackle ivory poaching.
Most of Gabon's forest elephants in Minkebe National Park (NP) have been slaughtered by illegal hunters for a lucrative Asian market during the last decade.
A small team of Northern Ireland-based troops are on their way after a request from Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba for help in battling a trade which has brought the animals to the verge of extinction.
Major Mark Shercliff said: "It's a challenging environment for the park agencies in Gabon and for ourselves as soldiers.
"With a range of forestation across a hilly environment it is not a straightforward task.
"We have junior soldiers with a range of tactical experience, we have strong and experienced instructors who work with troops deploying all over the globe.
"This allows us to focus on low level skills as well as building the teams that will be needed within the park agencies."
The soldiers, a team of 12 drawn from the Royal Scots Borderers, the Rifles and other specialist corps, will work with rangers at a military training centre at Mokekou - nine hours drive from the nearest town.
They will share experience and training in surveillance, analysis, collection and use of criminal intelligence to prosecute gangs responsible for the slaughter.
Gabon is 85% rainforest and is second only to the Amazon in size.
Minkebe NP lies on the border with Cameroon. The dense green forest, the size of Belgium, has seen 15,000 of its population of 22,000 elephants killed at the hands of poachers.
The animals are slain for their tusks, which are transported abroad to buyers in Asia.
Major Shercliff said it would take a huge international and political effort to end poaching and prevent extinction.
He added: "Military input cannot solve this alone, but it can help at the tactical level.
"There is a lot of work to be done above us all in the political sphere by getting countries around the world to combat poaching in a way that is joined up - this is not a phenomenon that belongs to the single country or single continent."
The World Wildlife Fund regional director Pauwel De Wachter has declared it a major crisis and the Gabonese President has pledged war on poachers.