Photographer who found the bodies fears up to 1,000 could be dead in the Boubandjida National Park, Cameroon

Lying in crumpled heaps, severed body parts strewn nearby, this is the terrible toll of the ivory trade on a once-thriving herd of elephants.

Brutal: The shapeless and lifeless bodies of these once beautiful elephants are shown strewn across the national park having all been murdered

Thirty-five carcasses of the majestic gentle giants were found mutilated in a single attack by poachers at a popular safari destination in Cameroon.

The heart-breaking sight was captured by a photographer last month – 20 years after the global ivory trade was officially banned to protect Africa’s herds.

In the aftermath of the slaughter at Bouba N’djida National Park, a terrified young elephant was seen cowering around his mother’s corpse – the only living elephant the photographer saw in the park for a whole week.

Local activists say 400 elephants may have been killed in this park alone since the beginning of the year – almost its total population according to the World Wildlife Fund.

This region of the country did contain Africa’s largest population of savannah elephants. There are thought to be less than 5,000 elephants left in the whole country.

Cameroon is one of a number of African countries whose elephants are at risk of extinction due to a spike in organised gangs of poachers targeting them for their tusks.

Hacked apart with most of their faces missing, they took chainsaws to the animals heads to reach the valuable ivory which sells for up to £10,000 for a large tusk – leaving a severed trunk nearby.

Poachers are often poor locals, but in this case they were a horseback-riding gang carrying machine guns, thought to have travelled 1,000 miles from Sudan across Central Africa and Chad to reach this site.

Solemn: A bystander sits surrounded by bodies in the elephant graveyard

Photographer Jean-Francois Lagrot, who works for a local NGO fighting wildlife crime, captured these scenes in early March, at great personal risk after the site was sealed off by soldiers.

While Cameroon authorities are now trying to police the park, campaigners fear it may be too little too late to save the once-numerous herds.

He said: ‘There is a spike in poaching all over Africa, it is terrible at the moment. These are the sort of poachers you do not mess with. They are on horseback and have weapons.

‘They bribe local villagers with the elephant meat so they don’t tell the authorities and the result is more and more slaughtering of elephants.

‘Journalists were kept away from the slaughter and they did not allow a census of all the dead elephants because of the negative image for Cameroon.’

In his view, backed up by the World Wildlife Fund which works in the country, the reason for the spike is clear – relentless demand for ivory from the Far East and particularly China.

With its peoples’ rising personal wealth and a taste for intricately-carved ivory jewellery and crockery, hundreds of tonnes is making its way to their shores.

Mr Lagrot said elite army units were sent to the Park to secure the protected area and push the poachers out, but while they made them take flight, none were caught and one the army drivers was said to have been shot.

He said: ‘Witnesses heard 63 shots from the camp during six long minutes of shooting. There were 35 dead at this site, and another 10 elephants a couple of kilometres away. They packed the tusks in maize bags.

‘They didn’t catch them and the horsemen were seen riding North towards Waza National Park [nearby] and asking villagers about the corridor for elephants.’

Rise: A new BBC investigation found elephant numbers in Kenya had dropped due to illegal killing

A Panorama investigation screened last night found the global trade in ivory is at its worst since records after the 1989 ban, with incidents of elephant slaughter also on the rise in Kenya, Tanzania and Congo.

Hauls of elephant tusks found at ports in Africa and Asia reached 24 tonnes last year, double the figure for 2010. The seizures equate to around 2,500 dead elephants in 2011 alone – and that’s only the ones they found.

In Samburu in northern Kenya, where numbers of elephants have plummeted by a quarter in three years, camera crews were shown the carcass of a dead female elephant who was pregnant, and the remains of her unborn calf.

Reporters in Hong Kong found ivory being carved by craftsmen and much of it sold without the official paperwork required to show it has been legally sourced.

Many critics blame CITES the international treaty which banned the global ivory trade, for a recent decision to allow African countries to sell stockpiled of ivory they had seized which may have driven up demand.

Dr. Allard Blom, managing director of WWF’s Congo Basin program said the situation in Cameroon was ‘the worst poaching massacre that I can recall in the decades we have worked to save elephants in Africa’.

‘Poaching is escalating because of a growing demand for ivory from Asia and if we fail to take immediate action in the face of such plunder, then much of Africa’s elephants could disappear forever to satisfy human greed’, he said.