An international effort to halt the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory tusks has all but collapsed in most of Africa, leaving officials and advocates alarmed about the survival of the species. A study released yesterday estimates that as many as 23,000 of the animals were slaughtered last year alone.
A team of wildlife and law enforcement experts concluded that a widely hailed 1989 ban on international sales of ivory has been overwhelmed by exploding demand for ivory in Japan and newly rich China and declining support for anti-poaching programs.
"Right now, things are really much worse than before the ban," said Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington, lead author of the study, funded jointly by the U.S. government and several nonprofit groups.
"Almost half of Africa's elephants had been slaughtered in the eight years before the ban, but now the situation is even more extreme because the number of animals is so much lower to begin with," he said. "And unlike in the late '80s, the public has forgotten about this issue."
Wasser said that poaching poses a renewed threat to the survival of regional herds in many countries and to the entire subspecies of forest elephants, which he said is being "annihilated" in central Africa.
Wasser said that reports of a rebound in elephant numbers had produced a distorted view of the situation. Of the roughly 400,000 elephants in the African wild, he said, about 130,000 are in Botswana, where they are well protected to the point that they have overbred. Of the elephants elsewhere in Africa, more than 23,000, 1 in 12, were killed last year, the researchers estimated.
The estimate is based on the 54,000 pounds of ivory confiscated in 12 international seizures in the year that ended August 2006, and an assumption by customs officials that they seize only 10 percent of smuggled contraband. Ivory is in demand for jewelry and for "hankos," used to stamp personal seals and signatures in parts of East Asia.
"People read these days about elephant overpopulation in places like Botswana, and how elephants are coming more and more into deadly contact with people," Wasser said. "But that's one small piece of the story. Overwhelmingly, what we have across Africa is a widespread slaughter of elephants that is getting worse by the day."
The report said that the ban on international ivory sales was effective at first, largely because wealthy nations provided money to police game parks and go after poachers. Elephant populations rebounded substantially, especially in southern Africa, but as more exceptions to the ban were allowed and funding was cut back, illegal killings resumed.
Compounding the problem, ivory smuggling has become increasingly the province of organized crime, with narcotics and other contraband often being shipped with the tusks. Ivory prices have skyrocketed, Wasser said, and the incentives for killing elephants for their tusks have never been greater.
Wasser's report, published in the online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also described a unique effort to determine the origins of 532 unusually large tusks confiscated in Singapore in 2002. Using DNA analysis, the group led by Wasser determined that the tusks came from African savannah elephants similar to those found in and around the nation of Zambia.
The seizure coincided with a request by the Zambian government for permission to sell tusks it had in storage. The U.N. treaty that banned international ivory sales in 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), allows limited sales of tusks harvested from animals that die naturally if the home government can demonstrate that it is controlling poaching.
In its request, Zambia said that 135 elephants had been killed illegally in the country in the past decade, but the researchers estimated that 3,000 to 6,500 had been killed in the short period before the Singapore shipment.
Much of the funding for the DNA analysis came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's African Elephant Conservation program, established by Congress in 1988. The study was funded mainly by the agency and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Wasser and the other authors, who include an Interpol employee and African conservation officials, said that an aggressive, well-funded anti-poaching program could be highly effective now because DNA testing can pinpoint where the animals are being killed. The report also said that an education program in East Asia is essential to curb the demand for ivory.
"I don't think people in China and Japan fully understand the crisis that their ivory purchases have caused," Wasser said. He proposed something like a current Chinese campaign against shark-fin soup, in which a popular basketball player asks, "What's wrong with us that we kill the sharks for the fin?"
While the 1989 ban forbids all unapproved sales of ivory between nations, illegal material that slips through can become legal once it turns up in a different country. Before the 1989 ban, most smuggled ivory was shipped to Europe, the United States and Japan. Now, the report found, most of it is going to China and Japan, although authorities say that some is turning up again in the United States.
Japan and China have petitioned to become authorized "trading partners" for any legalized international ivory trading. In October 2006, a CITES committee authorized Japan provisionally but deferred a decision on China. At that meeting, however, Japan failed to report 2.8 tons of illegal ivory it had seized several months before, showing, some officials said, that smuggling remains a problem.