An insatiable Chinese demand for ivory and the increasing involvement of organized crime syndicates in smuggling are causing the mass killing of Africa's elephants and could trigger a stampede to extinction if unchecked, according to a new report.
"Poaching and trafficking in ivory is at the highest level in 25 years," driven by skyrocketing prices for elephant tusks, said the report, published Wednesday by the wildlife conservation group Born Free and the data analysis nonprofit C4ADS.
In 2013, a record 50 tons of ivory were seized globally, nearly 45 tons of which were "large-scale consignments that bear the hallmarks of organized crime," according to the report, titled "Out of Africa: Mapping the Global Trade in Illicit Elephant Ivory." The report said it's difficult to estimate the number of elephants killed to furnish the supply, but calculated that "at least 20,000 elephants are being killed annually out of a total population of around 450,000," adding that "the real number (is) likely significantly higher."
The slaughter is being driven almost entirely by demand from China, which is the largest market for ivory and fuels trafficking across Africa and East Asia, the report said. Wholesale prices for ivory have skyrocketed in China, reaching $2,100 a kilogram (about $953 a pound) in 2014, almost five times the estimated price in 2010, it said.
The illegal trade also amounts to a massive financial transfer out of the poorest parts of Africa, it said, to the benefit of "international organized crime syndicates, warlords, corrupt politicians, and even extremists, insurgents and terrorists."
The reports said a worldwide ban on international ivory trade by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) organization in 1989 initially succeeded in depressing demand and essentially dried up Western markets. But it also triggered a shift from what was previously "an opportunistic and artisanal trade to a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise spanning continents," it said.
Now, it said, African crime networks typically control operations from the forest to the staging area, at which point the contraband is sold and becomes the responsibility of the Asian syndicates, which handle international transportation.
Asked by NBC News what surprised him most about the report's conclusions, Born Free CEO Adam Roberts said it was "the level of organized crime involved in both parts of the international ivory trade, the African syndicates in poaching and bundling, then Asian syndicates to receive and sell the ivory in Asia."
The report is the second in a series of reports on the ivory trade by the two organizations and focuses on the complex supply chain by which the illegal ivory is smuggled from Africa to Asia, much of it packed in seaborne shipping containers alongside legal goods.
C4ADS focused on more than 500 "significant" seizures of illegal ivory since 2008, using open-source data, media reports and business and tax records to supplement the official Elephant Trade Information System database.
The report found that 90 percent or more of the large-scale shipments intercepted were bound for Asia. Asian organized crime groups were almost certainly involved, given the complexity of arranging the transportation, which "necessitates the cooperation or collusion of various individuals, such as freight forwarders, clearing agents, shipping and customs agents, dockworkers and … port officials," it said.
It also said that Asian mobs were "vertically integrating their operations to maximize profits," by expanding procurement operations closer to the source in Africa and establishing illegal carving factories in China to prepare the ivory for retail sale.
"Chinese ivory traffickers in particular have been arrested across nearly every single African range state and operate at nearly every point along the ivory supply chain," it said, noting that ivory prices can increase by as much as 4,000 percent from the African bush to retail markets.
Efforts to crack down on smuggled ivory in China are complicated by the existence of a legal ivory market.
After China's Ministry of Culture declared ivory part of the country's "intangible cultural heritage" in 2006, CITES approved a "one-off" sale to China of 62 tons of seized ivory to use in support of its carving industry. Since then, the government has released about 5 tons a year to legal operators.
But the report said that "significant enforcement gaps" exist in China's regulatory framework and that black-market ivory is likely being laundered through the legal system - though it's unclear how much.
Roberts, the Born Free executive, said the report highlights the need for greater interdiction efforts in Africa.
"The more we can attack the ivory trade before the ivory gets to market, the more we can deter these poachers and profiteers from making money off dead elephants," he said.
And while China has been seizing more ivory at its ports, Roberts said Beijing needs to do more to curtail the bloody trade.
"Clearly China is the problem. Its market is open and it is huge," he said. "… Numerous Chinese companies are involved and they all know that if they can get the ivory into the country there is profit to be made. As long as the government allows these companies to operate, they're encouraging the killing of elephants."
The Chinese Embassy in Washington referred NBC News to the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles for comment, but a phone call on Tuesday was not returned.