In the fight against skyrocketing inflation, African elephants may have the most to lose. Conservationists claim that an estimated 1.3 million of them are threatened by soaring ivory prices, which have increased from $2.30 a pound in 1979 to $60 this year.

In the last five years, about one-third of all African elephants have been killed, according to the Fund for Animals, a conservationist group.

From 100,000 to 400,000 were killed in 1976, according to international elephat authority Iain Douglas-Hamilton, and Lewis Regenstein of the Fund for Animals says that rate is accelerating.

"There are a lot left, but at the current rate of killing, you're virtually going to wipe them out in a few years," he said. "With the dollar becoming a more unstable form of currency, people are definitely turning to ivory to invest in -- there's no question that's a factor" in the poaching going on in Africa.

About 90 members of Congress are sponsoring a bill to toughen Interior Department regulations on ivory imports. The United States imports more than $21 million worth of worked and unworked ivory annually, about one-third of the world ivory trade.

Many of these imports ae coming into this country under fraudulent documents, a Justice Department aside told the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee yesterday.

In 1977, the Interior Department listed elephants as a threatened species, and limited ivory imports to those from nations pleding to limit poaching.

But Marian Newman of the Fund for Animals criticized Interior for allowing ivory into the United States from nations that have not pledged to curb poaching. Trying to discern the origin of ivory imports "presents a real problem," Tony zLiotta, a justice Department aide, said.

The countries that agreed to curb poaching have not done so effectively, said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), one of the bill's sponsors because "they just don't have the resources."

The bill would ban imports of elephants and elephant products for six months, during which time the Interior Department could strengthen its restrictions on ivory trade, Oberstar said.

He said he expected the bill to reach the House floor by October.