JOHANNESBURG — Large seizures of elephant tusks made last year the worst on record since ivory sales were banned in 1989, with estimates suggesting that poachers killed 3,000 elephants, researchers said.
"2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants," said Tom Milliken, elephant and rhino specialist for the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.
In one case last 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," Mr. Milliken said.
Most cases involve ivory smuggling from Africa into Asia, where growing wealth has fed the desire for ivory ornaments and for rhino horns used in traditional medicine, though scientists have proved that they have no medicinal value.
Traffic said Asian crime syndicates are increasingly involved in poaching and in 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," Mr. 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 stockpiles of elephants killed years ago, but the International Fund for Animal Welfare said estimates suggest that more than 3,000 elephants were 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, Mass.
He said poaching also reached "alarming levels" in Congo, northern Kenya, southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique.
Mr. Milliken said 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," he said.
All statistics have not been compiled and researchers cannot say how much ivory is undetected, but Traffic said it is clear that there has been a "dramatic increase" last year in the number of large-scale seizures, those more than 1,760 pounds in weight.
Authorities discovered at least 13 large seizures last year, compared with six in 2010, with a total weight of nearly 2,200 pounds.
In Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve alone, about 50 elephants a month are killed and their tusks hacked off, according to the Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
With shipments so large, criminals have taken to sending them by sea instead of by air, falsifying documents with the help of corrupt officials, monitors said.
In another sign of corruption, some of the seized ivory has been identified as coming from government-owned stockpiles — made up of confiscated tusks and those from dead elephants, Mr. Milliken said.
Rhinos also have suffered. A record 443 rhinos were killed last year in South Africa, according to National Geographic News Watch.
That surpassed 2009's figure of 333 dead rhinos, despite the deployment of government soldiers to protect the endangered animals last year in its flagship Kruger National Park.
National Geographic reported last week that 244 of the rhinos killed last year were poached in Kruger, and that figure is expected to rise.
South Africa is home to 90 percent of the rhinos left on the continent, and Kruger has more than 10,000 white rhinos and about 500 black rhinos.
Africa's elephant population was estimated at 5 million to 10 million before white hunters came to the continent with European colonization in the 19th century.
Massive poaching for the ivory trade in the 1980s cut the remaining number of African elephants to about 600,000.
After the 1989 ban on ivory trade and concerted international efforts to protect the animals, elephant herds in eastern and southern Africa were thriving before the threat arrived from Asia.
A report from Kenya's Amboseli National Park highlighted the dangers.
Almost no poaching occurred for 30 years in the park, which lies in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, until a Chinese company was awarded the contract to build a highway nearby three years ago.