04 August 2006Samuel Wasser, of the University of Washington, said the elephant death rate from poaching was currently 8 per cent, higher than the 7.4 per cent rate which led to the international ivory trade ban in 1989
African elephants face extinction by 2020, conservationists warn.
Recent reports have shown that demand for ivory is growing in places such as China, Japan and the US
Writing in the journal Conservation Biology, Dr Wasser and fellow researchers warned that without public pressure to ensure a strengthening of anti-poaching measures, most remaining large groups of elephants will be extinct by the end of next decade.
The population in the 1980s was around 1 million, with around 70,000 elephants being killed a year. The total African elephant population is now less than 470,000.
Dr Wasser said the loss of the animals will have a negative impact on their ecosystem and other wildlife that depend on it - as well as on the cashflow they generate from tourists.
"If the trend continues, there won't be any elephants except in fenced areas with a lot of enforcement to protect them," he said.
"The situation is worse than ever before and the public is unaware. It's very serious because elephants are an incredibly important species.
"They keep habitats open so other species that depend on such ecosystems can use them. Without elephants there will be major habitat changes, with negative effects on the many species that depend on the lost habitat.
"Elephants are also a major part of ecotourism, which is an important source of hard currency for many African countries. Recent reports have shown that demand for ivory is growing in places such as China, Japan and the US.
DNA analysis developed by Dr Wasser's laboratory which enables researchers to determine which elephant population ivory comes shows from recent seizures that hunters are targeting specific herds.
Dr Wasser said such information could be used to increase and focus enforcement efforts for at-risk groups of elephants, but that will only happen with greater international pressure to save them.
The restrictions on ivory brought in by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in 1989 led to much stronger enforcement efforts and almost halted poaching.
But the success of the ban led to less enforcement, and poaching has increased to the current rates, he said. "Public support stopped the illegal ivory trade back in 1989 and can do so again.
"The work with DNA sampling allows us to focus law enforcement on poaching hotspots. "It forces countries to take more responsibility for what goes on within their borders, and it also gives us more insight on where to look so that, hopefully, we can stop the poachers before the elephants are actually killed."