Africa's elephant population plummeting, conservation groups warn

Three groups say the African elephant population could decrease by 20 percent in a decade if poaching is not slowed

A 2012 handout shows a researcher from of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) examining a killed elephant in Cameroon.

Africa could lose 20 percent of its elephant population in a decade if current poaching levels are not slowed, animal conservation groups warned Monday.

An estimated 22,000 elephants were illegally killed across the continent last year, as poaching reached "unacceptably elevated levels," according to a joint study (PDF) by three conservation groups released at the start of the African Elephant Summit in Botswana.

The threshold of sustainability of the African elephant population was crossed in 2010, with poaching rates remaining above the population growth rate threshold ever since, the report states. 

Experts and ministers met in Botswana Monday to look at ways to stamp out the elephant slaughter, which is mostly fueled by a growing demand for ivory in Asia.

"We continue to face a critical situation," said John E. Scanlon, secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). "Current elephant poaching in Africa remains far too high, and could soon lead to local extinctions if the present killing rates continue."

Scanlon described the situation in central Africa, where the estimated poaching rate is twice the continental average, as "particularly acute."

There are around half a million elephants left in Africa, compared with 1.2 million in 1980 and 10 million in 1900.

Researchers believe that weak governance in many African countries allows poachers to flourish.

Ivory trade is banned under international laws, but the ivory black market is estimated to be worth up to $10 billion a year and the price of ivory on the black market shot up tenfold in the past decade to more than $2,000 per kilogram (about $1,000 a pound). That has given people in poor African countries more incentives to poach.

As a result, the quantity of ivory traded has shot up over the past 13 years, according to Tom Milliken, an ivory trade expert with the wildlife monitoring agency TRAFFIC.

"2013 already represents a 20 percent increase over the previous peak year in 2011; we're hugely concerned," Milliken told Agence France-Presse.

Complicating the international movement to stop the ivory trade are shifting trafficking routes from the traditional West and central African seaports to east Africa, with Kenya and Tanzania as the exit points.

The group meeting in Botswana is expected to adopt a pact that will commit signatories, including the biggest ivory markets such as China, to demonstrate political will to fight against poaching and ivory trafficking.

Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse

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