Authorities in Congo have dismantled a major ivory network, arresting three traffickers in a blow to poaching operations that threaten the survival of the African forest elephant, the conservation group WWF said.
The suspects were arrested Feb. 4, and officials also seized 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of ivory ornaments and other items, the group said in a statement Friday.
"This action shows that ivory traffickers can no longer count on impunity for their crimes," said Bruno Perodeau, WWF's director of conservation in Congo.
Congo is home to two-thirds of the remaining population of African forest elephants, according to WWF. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed each year to fuel the illegal ivory trade.
If poaching isn't stopped, the species could be nearly wiped out from Congo "in the near future," the group said.
While the arrests this month mark "an important step" in saving the elephants, Congo must also take other measures including closing local ivory markets and increasing anti-poaching operations, said Alain Ononino, policy head for WWF's initiative against wildlife crime in Central Africa.
A spokesman for the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, which is in charge of the country's protected wildlife areas, declined to comment Saturday because the institute's director was out of the country.
Congo imposes prison terms of up to 10 years and fines of up to $110,000 for international ivory trafficking, according to WWF.