- Associated Press - Thursday, December 29, 2011

JOHANNESBURG — Large seizures of elephant tusks make this 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 Thursday.

“2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants,” said Tom Milliken, elephant and rhino expert for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

In one case earlier this month, Malaysian authorities seized hundreds of African elephant tusks worth $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,” said Milliken.

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.”

Some of the seized tusks came from old stockpiles, the elephants having been killed years ago.

But the International Fund for Elephant 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 based in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts

He said poaching also had reached “alarming levels” in 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’s been a “dramatic increase” this year in the number of large-scale seizures — those over 800 kilograms (1,760 pounds) in weight.

There were at least 13 large seizures this year, compared to six in 2010 with a total weight just under 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds).

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