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Tens of thousands of elephants likely killed last year, experts say

These elephants have some protection inside South Africa's Pilanesberg National Park but most across the continent are easy targets for poachers.
These elephants have some protection inside South Africa's Pilanesberg National Park but most across the continent are easy targets for poachers.Mike Hutchings / Reuters

Providing the grimmest count yet on Africa's wildlife crisis, the global body tracking endangered species reported Thursday that tens of thousands of elephants likely were slaughtered last year by poachers after their tusks. Rhinos, while fewer in number, also saw mass slaughter as poachers went after their horns. 

Prices for both have skyrocketed due to demand in Asia, where tusks are used for ivory ornaments and horns as a traditional medicine.

The illegal trade is escalating and "pushing these species toward extinction," John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, said in testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In the case of rhinos, just 25,000 of which are estimated left in the wild, extinction could come "during the lifetime of our children," he added.

In South Africa alone, he noted, 448 rhinos were killed last year -- up from 13 in 2007.

The Senate hearing on the rapid rise in smuggling came as Kenya said that 359 elephant tusks smuggled in shipping containers and confiscated by Sri Lanka had come from its ports.

Scanlon said a report coming out later this year on Africa's elephants will show that "the levels of illegal killing exceed what can be sustained in all four African sub-regions in 2011, with elephant populations now in net decline."

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"We have slid into an acute crisis with the African elephant that does not appear to be on many people’s radar in the U.S.," added Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants. "What’s happening to the elephants is outrageous, and the more so since we have been through these ivory crises before and should have found solutions by now."

Even before the most recent escalation, Africa's elephant population had shrunk from an estimated 1.3 million in 1979 to 450,000 in 2007, Douglas-Hamilton noted.

He urged the United States to press other nations, particularly China and Thailand, to crack down on the trade, and to provide more funds for conservation. "If China would declare a unilateral 10-year moratorium on ivory imports, there would be a future for elephants in Africa," he said.

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