Large seizures of elephant tusks made last year the worst on record since ivory sales were banned in 1989, with recent estimates suggesting as many as 3,000 elephants were killed by poachers, experts said.
“2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants,” said Tom Milliken, elephant and rhino expert for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, on Thursday.
In one case last month, Malaysian authorities seized hundreds of African elephant tusks worth US$1.3 million that were being shipped to Cambodia.
The ivory was hidden in containers of Kenyan handicrafts.
“In 23 years of compiling ivory seizure data ... this is the worst year ever for large ivory seizures,” Milliken said.
Most cases involve ivory being smuggled from Africa into Asia, where growing wealth has fed the desire for ivory ornaments and for rhino horn that is used in traditional medicine, though scientists have proved it has no medicinal value.
TRAFFIC said Asian crime syndicates are increasingly involved in poaching and the illegal ivory trade across Africa, a trend that coincides with growing Asian investment on the continent.
“The escalation in ivory trade and elephant and rhino killing is being driven by the Asian syndicates that are now firmly enmeshed within African societies,” Milliken said in a telephone interview from his base in Zimbabwe.
“There are more Asians than ever before in the history of the continent, and this is one of the repercussions,” he said.
Some of the seized tusks came from old stockpiles, the elephants having been killed years ago.
However, the International Fund for Animal Welfare said recent estimates suggest more than 3,000 elephants have been killed for their ivory in the past year alone.
“Reports from Central Africa are particularly alarming and suggest that if current levels of poaching are sustained, some countries, such as Chad, could potentially lose their elephant populations in the very near future,” said Jason Bell, director of the elephant program for the fund, which is based in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts.
He said poaching also had reached “alarming levels” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, northern Kenya, southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique.
Milliken thinks criminals may have the upper hand in the war to save rare and endangered animals.
“As most large-scale ivory seizures fail to result in any arrests, I fear the criminals are winning,” Milliken said.
All statistics are not yet in, and no one can say how much ivory is getting through undetected, but TRAFFIC said it is clear there was been a “dramatic increase” last year in the number of large-scale seizures — those over 800kg in weight.
There were at least 13 large seizures last year, compared to six in 2010 with a total weight just under 1,000kg.
In Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve alone, about 50 elephants a month are being killed and their tusks hacked off, according to the Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
With shipments so large, criminals have taken to shipping them by sea instead of by air, falsifying documents with the help of corrupt officials, monitors said.
In another sign of corruption, Milliken said some of the seized ivory has been identified as coming from government-owned stockpiles — which are made up of both confiscated tusks and those from dead elephants.