African elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory at a rate unprecedented since an international convention banning ivory trade took effect in 1989. If something isn?t done soon, we may not be able to save these magnificent creatures from extinction in the wild, and there will be only a few left, all of them living in zoos. This is all happening because of medicine in China, the same way the US causes the destructive drug trade in South America.

For the year ending in August 2006, authorities seized more than 23,400 kilograms, or nearly 24 tons, of contraband ivory, but it is commonly assumed that customs agents typically detect only about 10% of contraband, so the actual amount of poached ivory probably is closer to 234,000 kilograms. That means more than 23,000 elephants, or about 5% of Africa’s total population, were probably killed for that amount of ivory.

China’s burgeoning economy is a major force driving the black-market ivory trade, escalating prices and attracting organized crime. In 1989 a kilogram of high-quality ivory sold for $100 on the black market. That rose to $200 in 2004 but by last year had ballooned to $750 per kilogram. Like Rhinoceros horn, the elephant ivory is ground up and used in “traditional” Chinese medical cures. Similar poaching is driving the Rhino into extinction as well.

Over several years, biologist Samuel Wasser and his colleagues have collected genetic information from a variety of elephant populations by sampling tissue and dung. Using that information, they showed that the ivory came from elephants on Africa’s broad savannahs, not in forests. Further testing showed the ivory came from a small area of southern Africa, most likely centered on Zambia. Law enforcement agencies have identified many participants in the poaching, yet not one person has been prosecuted.

Wasser says. “If [the African] people really realized what is happening they would be ashamed to be part of the crisis. We don’t want to spend our time catching criminals, we want to stop the crime from happening. That’s the most effective enforcement you can do.”

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