JOHANNESBURG — It's been a disastrous year for elephants, perhaps the worst since ivory sales were banned in 1989 to save the world's largest land animals from extinction, the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC said Thursday.
A record number of large seizures of elephant tusks represents at least 2,500 dead animals and shows that organized crime — in particular Asian syndicates — is increasingly involved in the illegal ivory trade and the poaching that feeds it, the group said.
Some of the seized tusks came from old stockpiles, the elephants having been killed years ago. It's not clear how many elephants were recently killed in Africa for their tusks, but experts are alarmed.
TRAFFIC's elephant and rhino expert Tom Milliken thinks 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," Milliken told The Associated Press.
Most cases involve ivory being smuggled from Africa into Asia, where growing wealth has fed the desire for ivory ornaments and for rhino horn that is used in traditional medicine, though scientists have proved it has no medicinal value.
"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," 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."
All statistics are not yet in, and no one can say how much ivory is getting through undetected, but "what is clear is the dramatic increase in the number of large-scale seizures, over 800 kilograms (1,760 pounds) in weight, that have taken place in 2011," TRAFFIC said in a statement.
There were at least 13 large seizures this year, compared to six in 2010 with a total weight just under 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds).
In the most recent, and worst, case Malaysian authorities seized hundreds of African elephant tusks on Dec. 21 worth $1.3 million that were being shipped to Cambodia. The ivory was hidden in containers of handicrafts from Kenya's Mombasa port. Most large seizures have originated from Kenyan or Tanzanian ports, TRAFFIC said.
Fifty elephants a month are being killed, their tusks hacked off, in Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, according to the Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
With shipments so large, criminals have taken to shipping them by sea instead of by air, falsifying documents with the help of corrupt officials, monitors said.
Milliken said some of the seized ivory has been identified as coming from government-owned stockpiles — made up of confiscated tusks and those of dead elephants — in another sign of corruption.
"In 23 years of compiling ivory seizure data ... this is the worst year ever for large ivory seizures. 2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants," said Milliken.
Rhinos also have suffered. A record 443 rhino were killed this year in South Africa, according to National Geographic News Watch.
That surpassed last year's figure of 333 dead rhino despite the government deploying soldiers to protect them this year in its flagship Kruger National Park. There, 244 of the rhino were killed in 2011, National Geographic reported this week. That figure is expected to rise before the end of the year. Kruger has more than 10,000 white rhinos and about 500 black rhinos. South Africa is home to 90 percent of the rhinos left on the continent.
Africa's elephant population was estimated at between 5 million and 10 million before the big white hunters came to the continent with European colonization. Massive poaching for the ivory trade in the 1980s halved the remaining number of African elephants to about 600,000.
Following the 1989 ban on ivory trade and concerted international efforts to protect the animals, elephant herds in east and southern Africa were thriving before the new threat arrived from Asia.
A report from Kenya's Amboseli National Park highlighted the dangers. There had been almost no poaching in the park, which lies in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, for 30 years until a Chinese company was awarded the contract to build a highway nearby two years ago. Amboseli has lost at least four of its "big tuskers" since then.