Yaounde, Cameroon (CNN) -- Heavily armed poachers recently killed nearly 40 endangered forest elephants for their ivory in two national parks, officials in Cameroon said Tuesday, the latest in a string of slaughters of the animals in Central Africa.
"The carcasses are still fresh, indicating the killings took place probably only this month," ecologist Theophile Mbarga told CNN on Tuesday.
Very young -- even newborn -- elephants were among the carcasses found in Nki and Lobeke national parks. The toll could reach 50 after a thorough search is made, Mbarga added.
The dead elephants were found closely clustered -- less than 35 feet apart -- indicating the poachers used powerful, modern weapons, conservation group WWF project manager Zacharie Nzooh told journalists Tuesday.
Evidence indicates that a horseback-riding band of about 300 poachers from Sudan was behind the slaughter, officials said. The same poachers were believed to be responsible for hundreds of elephant deaths over the past year.
Forest elephants are distinguished from the more familiar savanna elephants by their smaller size and straighter tusks. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of their ivory sells for hundreds of dollars on the underground market in places such as China and Thailand. Political analysts say the proceeds fund rebel groups in Sudan and the Central African Republic.
A recent peer-reviewed study published at PLOS One documented a "catastrophic" 62 percent decline in Central Africa's forest elephant population over nine years. Officials estimated that 1,700 forest elephants remain in the two Cameroonian parks. It is feared they will be completely wiped out within seven years.
Savanna elephant populations in the Central African Republic are believed to have plummeted from around 80,000 just 30 years ago to a few hundred today, according to WWF, formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund.
The governments of three Central African nations -- Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Chad -- announced Saturday they would muster as many as 1,000 soldiers for joint military operations to protect the region's last remaining savanna elephants, as the Sudanese poachers are still active in the region.
"We recommend the mobilization of all defense and security forces in the affected countries" to stop the poachers, members of the Economic Community of Central African States said in a joint statement. The communique was issued at the end of a three-day emergency anti-poaching ministerial conference held in Cameroon's capital, Yaoundé.
The operation is estimated to cost about $2.3 million. The announcement called on other nations to contribute additional funds to sustain the effort.
On the night of March 14 to 15, poachers slaughtered killed at least 89 elephants in southern Chad, WWF said. They are also believed to be behind the killing of at least 30 elephants in the Central African Republic since January 1.
The poachers on horseback are also suspected of killing 300 elephants in Cameroon's Bouba N'Djida National Park in early 2012. The carnage prompted Cameroon to mobilize 600 elite troops to try to keep the poachers from crossing the border again, WWF reported.
In the statement, the ECCAS states congratulated Thailand for its March 3 decision to ban its legal domestic ivory trade and urged its vigorous enforcement.
Ivory consumers "need to be sensitized to the consequences" of the ivory trade, the statement said, adding that "destination countries (should) adopt measures to reduce ivory demand."
Robert Jackson, the U.S. ambassador to Cameroon, said he was pleased with the meeting.
"The plan is a good one. But execution is now critical." he said.
"I am, however, concerned that there is no mention of corruption in the statement, because it contributes directly to the poaching and trafficking problem," he said.
CNN's Jim Kavanagh contributed to this report.