African elephants could be extinct in the wild within a few decades, experts warned on Monday at a major conservation summit in Botswana that highlighted an alarming decline in numbers due to poaching.
The African Elephant Summit, held at a tourist resort in Kasane, gathered delegates from about 20 countries across Europe, Africa and Asia, including China — which is accused of fueling the illegal poaching trade.
"This species could be extinct in our lifetime if the current trend continues … within one or two decades," said Dune Ives, a senior researcher at philanthropic organization Vulcan.
"In five years, we may have lost the opportunity to save this magnificent and iconic animal."
The conference heard latest figures from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which reported that the African elephant population had dropped from 550,000 in 2006 to 470,000 in 2013.
East Africa has seen the worst decline, from 150,000 to about 100,000.
"The overall objective of this meeting is to secure commitments at the highest political level to effectively protect the elephants and significantly reduce the trends of killings of elephants," said Elias Magosi of Botswana’s Environment Ministry.
"The current killing rate is unsustainable, and the population of African elephant is in danger."
Elephant hunting is often organized by international criminal networks to supply the illegal ivory market, mainly in Asia, with some profits thought to fund regional conflicts and armed groups.
"These syndicates take advantage of conflicts, social unrest, poor governance," said Magosi.
Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring group, said ivory trading routes showed the flow from Kenya and Tanzania to transit countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines before going to final markets in China and Thailand.
"Thailand is still a country of great concern," said Tom Milliken of Traffic. "[But] China is the most important country that we are dealing with in the world, with respect to illegal ivory trade."
The conference follows up on a 2013 meeting in Gaborone, Botswana, where 30 countries adopted a set of urgent conservation measures, including a call to unite against poaching and improve criminal prosecution.
On Wednesday, the Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade will also meet in Kasane to focus on the trafficking of all threatened species — an illegal trade worth $19 billion a year, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Ivory is reportedly bought at $45 per pound from poachers and sold for $2,100 in China.
Julian Blanc, an elephant specialist for the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, said the link between poverty in Africa and poaching highlighted one way to tackle the illegal killing of elephants.
"We have monitored a direct correlation between human infant mortality [a measure of poverty] at district level and levels of poaching," he said.
"In places where there is high level of infant mortality and poverty, we monitored the highest level of elephant poaching … so addressing poverty is a significant component of elephant conservation."