Poaching of elephants for their ivory is a "grave menace" to peace and security in central Africa, the United Nations Security Council has been warned.
The illegal ivory trade may be an important source of funding for armed groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army, a militant group which continues to terrorise the region, said a report by the UN secretary general to the Security Council.
Poachers are also using increasingly sophisticated and powerful weapons, some of which are thought to have come from Libya in the wake of the conflict there, the report to the global security body on the wider situation in central Africa warned.
Conservationists backed the report's findings, warning of the "devastating impact" of the armed gangs which target elephants for their ivory, a sought-after product in China. The report said Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad and Gabon in particular are facing the problem of poaching by armed gangs.
In the decade to 2013, more than 11,000 elephants were slaughtered in the Minkebe Park area alone in north-eastern Gabon, while in March this year 86 elephants including 33 pregnant females were killed within a week in Chad. In Cameroon, 300 elephants were killed in the northern area of Bouba Ndjida National Park in the last two months of 2012, the report to the Security Council reports.
The situation has become so serious that in some countries, including Cameroon, the national army is being used in addition to law enforcement agencies to hunt down poachers.
The report from UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said: "Poaching and its potential linkages to other criminal, even terrorist, activities constitute a grave menace to sustainable peace and security in central Africa. Illegal ivory trade may currently constitute an important source of funding for armed groups. Also of concern is that poachers are using more and more sophisticated and powerful weapons, some of which, it is believed, might be originating from the fallout in Libya."
The secretary general called on governments in the region to consider poaching as a major security concern requiring their concerted and co-ordinated action.
Conservation charity WWF International's director general, Jim Leape, said: "The spread of cross-border poaching in central Africa and its links to sophisticated armed groups is alarming. We have seen the devastating impact of this crime in too many countries."
UK Environment Minister Richard Benyon said: "We must not allow organised crime to profit from this despicable trade. It's only by working together that we can ensure that future generations will be able to see elephants outside of a zoo."