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Worst year in decades for elephants

Large seizures of elephant tusks have made this year the worst on record since ivory sales were banned in 1989, with recent estimates suggesting as many as 3,000 elephants were killed by poachers, experts have said.

"2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants," said Tom Milliken, elephant and rhino expert for the UK-based wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.

In one case earlier this month, Malaysian authorities seized hundreds of African elephant tusks worth 1.3 million US dollars (£833,000) which 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 Mr 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 which 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," Mr 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."

Some of the seized tusks came from old stockpiles, the elephants having been killed years ago, but the International Fund for Elephant 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 programme for the fund based in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts.

Rhinos also have suffered: a record 443 were killed this year in South Africa, according to National Geographic News Watch.

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