25 000 elephants have been killed last year across Africa, and the numbers will grow, a continental conference on poaching has heard.
African states have stepped up the fight against elephant poaching on the continent by committing to classify wildlife trafficking as a "serious crime", among other measures.
This was decided during a special meeting in Botswana currently under way at the African Elephant Summit. Organised by the Botswana government and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it was hosted after the rate of poaching accelerated this year. It is the first meeting of states to discuss elephant poaching along the entire chain – from the killing to ivory being smuggled off the continent.
"Our window of opportunity to tackle the growing illegal ivory trade is closing and if we do not stem the tide, future generations will condemn our unwillingness to act," said Botswana's president, Seretse Khama. "Now is the time for Africa and Asia to join forces to protect this universally valued and much-needed species."
A report released during the summit predicted that if poaching was not slowed down, a fifth of the elephants on the continent would be wiped out in the next decade.
The elephant population has dwindled from living in 46 countries in Africa to 35. The estimate of the total population are between 410 000 and 650 000, but in many cases there has not been a country count since the upsurge in elephant killing started in 2004.
The United States government has taken urgent steps to tackle poaching, after it linked the scourge to terrorist groups who derive funding from selling ivory. It has made it a primary objective of its anti-terrorism campaign. Al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the Kenya mall attack, allegedly gets 40% of its funds from the sale of ivory.
A comprehensive report on poaching, "Elephants in the Dust – The African Elephant Crisis", released at this year's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species said decisive action needed to be taken to stop poaching. It predicted that 25 000 elephants had been killed in 2012. This was double the number killed in 2007.
Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said in the report: "In Central and West Africa, the elephant may soon disappear from whole areas unless urgent action is taken."
He placed the blame squarely on Asian countries. "Organised syndicates ship several tonnes of ivory at a time to markets in Asia."
South Africa is relatively unscathed when it comes to elephant poaching, with local rhino populations being the preferred target of poachers because their populations have died out in the rest of the continent. Over 900 rhino have been killed this year.
But conservationists have warned that the routes used to poach and smuggle rhino horn could be used for elephant poaching. The only reason this has not happened is because it takes time to remove an elephant's horn – time that is not available with the active antipoaching initiatives in South Africa's parks.
Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, announced on Wednesday a R80-million fund to count the number of elephants in the 13 countries where they are mostly found. Three fixed-wing planes and two helicopters will be used for this.
"This is the bleakest time for elephants. Statistics on the plight of Africa's elephants are daunting," he said in a statement.