BOUBA NDJIDA NATIONAL PARK, Cameroon | Mon Dec 24, 2012 6:53am EST
(Reuters) - The welcome committee for Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida National Park, a former safari tourism destination, would not look out of place on a battlefield.
Faced with the threat of horse-mounted Sudanese elephant poachers armed with machine guns, the central African nation has deployed military helicopters and 600 soldiers to try to protect the park and its animals.
Its decision to call in the army follows a bloody incursion into the park last winter during which poachers from Sudan killed some 300 elephants, or 80 percent of the park's elephant population, within a few weeks.
Ivory sells for about $300 per kg on the black market, according to conservation group TRAFFIC, meaning that an average-sized tusk weighing 6.8 kg can be sold for a small fortune in central Africa, a region plagued by poverty and underdevelopment.
"It is clear we are dealing with a very heavily-armed group of men carrying machine guns and mortars," said Tumenta, saying soldiers had seized some weapons and ivory from a poacher camp in the bush last year.
The World Wildlife Fund has called Cameroon's deployment a "bold and courageous move" to protect the region's dwindling elephant population.
However, local residents said the huge military presence was disturbing.