"2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants," said Tom Milliken, elephant and rhino expert for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
In one case earlier this month, Malaysian authorities seized hundreds of African elephant tusks worth $1.3 million that were being shipped to Cambodia. The ivory was hidden in containers of Kenyan handicrafts.
"In 23 years of compiling ivory seizure data ... this is the worst year ever for large ivory seizures," said Milliken.
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.
TRAFFIC said Asian crime syndicates are increasingly involved in poaching and the illegal ivory trade across Africa, a trend that coincides with growing Asian investment on the continent.
"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 from his base in Zimbabwe.
Some of the seized tusks came from old stockpiles, the elephants having been killed years ago.
But the International Fund for Animal Welfare said recent estimates suggest more than 3,000 elephants have been killed for their ivory in the past year alone.
"Reports from Central Africa are particularly alarming and suggest that if current levels of poaching are sustained, some countries, such as Chad, could potentially lose their elephant populations in the very near future," said Jason Bell, director of the elephant program for the fund based in Massachusetts
He said poaching also had reached "alarming levels" in Congo, northern Kenya, southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique.
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 said.
All statistics are not yet in, and no one can say how much ivory is getting through undetected, But TRAFFIC said it is clear there's been a "dramatic increase" this year in the number of large-scale seizures -- those over 1,760 pounds in weight.
There were at least 13 large seizures this year, compared to six in 2010 with a total weight just under 2,200 pounds.
In Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve alone, some 50 elephants a month are being killed and their tusks hacked off, 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.
In another sign of corruption, Milliken said some of the seized ivory has been identified as coming from government-owned stockpiles -- made up of both confiscated tusks and those from dead elephants.
Africa's elephant population was estimated at between 5 million and 10 million before 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, 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 for 30 years in the park, which lies in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro until a Chinese company was awarded the contract to build a highway nearby. Amboseli has lost at least four of its "big tuskers" since then.
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