Poaching elephants for the illegal trade in ivory is becoming increasingly industrialised. The rate of killing, against a relatively slow natural population growth, could result in the extinction of the species – the largest land animal on the planet – in areas of Africa where it was once plentiful. The prospect of the elephant joining the dodo and, more recently, some sub-species of rhino and tigers, is a horrifying one.
The reasons why elephants are being slaughtered in escalating numbers in recent years are as much about economics as the drugs, war and terrorism that the trade funds.
Newly rich Asians demand increasing numbers of the ivory goods they associate with a classy Western lifestyle, driving up prices and profits – and are being aided by a massive failure on the part of the international community to enforce even existing rules. Those most closely involved in trying to fight the illegal trade, including The Independent on Sunday's partnership charity Space for Giants, warn that the demand from Asia threatens to wipe out many of the most endangered species within decades, if not earlier.
Poaching is becoming industrialised, with the most advanced weaponry being deployed to maximise the "harvest" of ivory – now more valuable weight for weight than gold. Governments, police and wildlife services across Africa are finding the battle difficult. An estimated 30,000 elephants have been killed every year since the start of the decade, and experts believe the number has soared this year. Estimates suggest that 100 elephants per day are being killed for their ivory. Today, rhinos are being killed in even the most heavily protected private sanctuaries.
Dr Max Graham, chief executive of Space for Giants, which works in Kenya to defend the elephant population, explains: "The high price of ivory in Asia is driving the current surge in poaching globally, while local poverty and poor governance are enabling it to happen locally. There are things that we can do, however."
Dr Graham points to the work the charity does in training and supporting wildlife community scouts, working with local magistrates and law enforcement agencies to prosecute the poachers, creating refuges, and to lobby governments around the world to take more effective action.
Efforts by Space for Giants and other groups have culminated in a planned London conference in February. Heads of government from nations affected by wildlife destruction will attend, and it will be hosted by the Prime Minister. Prince Charles and Prince William will be high-profile supporters of the effort.
"In the past five or six years, the poaching of elephants has gone off the scale. I think it will be dramatically higher than 30,000 this year, based on the large number of ivory seizures we have seen this year, which exceeds all previous records, and the high carcass count generally," adds Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency.
The rise of elephant poaching is driven by increased demand for ivory in countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan, which is satisfied by a rush of organised crime into a black market that offers low risk and high rewards.
But who is to blame for allowing this cruel and illegal activity to flourish? Ms Rice points the finger firmly at Cites, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, set up in 1975 to protect 35,000 species of animals and plants and signed up to by 179 governments around the world. In 1989, Cites technically banned ivory trading, but has occasionally allowed auctions of ivory stockpiles.
"It's not working at the moment. In principle, Cites should work, but in practice it's very slow, and it doesn't seem to provide an adequate response to what's going on. There is a lot of talk but not much meaningful action," Ms Rice said.
"Cites does have teeth, but it doesn't choose to use them. We see it repeatedly taking countries to task for non-compliance [with its trading rules], but then giving them more time and another chance to go away and come back. They won't apply punitive measures."
Cites has the power to apply tough sanctions on wildlife trade that would ban countries from trading a wide range of reptiles, birds and primates that can be legally bought and sold with the right permits. Such a ban could represent be a significant deterrent, because this trade is a good source of income for many countries. Losing it would represent a significant hit to their economies, experts say.
Although Cites does occasionally imposed sanctions – it currently has one on preventing Guinea from trading any of the species it covers – but critics say if they are to provide an effective deterrent, they need to make the sanctions much tougher and levied far more frequently.
Ms Rice says the clampdown on ivory trading has been made considerably harder because, although the trade is technically banned, Cites has made some exceptions. This has created a legal market, which illegal traders are able to hide behind. For example, about 90 per cent of the ivory traded in China is illegally sourced, compared with 10 per cent that is legal.
Two large ivory sales – to Japan in 1999 and to China and Japan in 2008 – allowed vast quantities to enter the market legally, while a separate agreement allows passengers from Zimbabwe to China to take 10kg with them for "personal consumption".
"The only solution is to have a complete and total ban everywhere," says Ms Rice.
Heather Sohl, chief species adviser at WWF-UK, says that while Cites is helping to address the problems of elephant poaching, it needs to do much more. "Our national governments are failing to deliver Cites. If it was implemented to the full extent, we wouldn't have this poaching crisis.
"The countries are failing to deliver their commitments. WWF is calling for real action to be taken, such as the consideration of sanctions. Cites has teeth: it has the ability to restrict trade."
Kenya, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Uganda, Tanzania, Vietnam and Thailand are the eight countries that represent the highest concern "in terms of their failure to clamp down on illegal ivory trade", Ms Sohl said, adding: "There have been arrests, but not at the scale required to act as a deterrent. Many of those arrests are not taken through to prosecution, and if they are prosecuted, the sentence is very weak compared to the profit that can be made.
"To tackle this problem, we need more boots on the ground to stop the poaching, more effective law enforcement along the trade route and more effective inspection and seizures. We need to tackle this as the serious crime that it is."
John Scanlon, Cites secretary-general, defends his organisation, pointing out that without Cites any country could trade any species with any other country. However, he concedes that enforcement of its rules is complicated by the fact that decisions are made by a 19-country "standing committee" which, despite having the same goal, has often fundamentally disagreed over how to achieve this, including whether it is right to ban ivory trade.
Advocates of ivory trade include some African "range states". They argue that poaching cannot be stopped and that a properly regulated market will enable be better for all parties involved.
But Mr Scanlon says the situation is now so bad that countries have agreed to put aside their differences in a renewed effort to tackle the problem. Historically, there has been a difference of opinion, for example, between states in Africa. But they have agreed to put aside their differences and to debate those another time, and we are seeing unprecedented levels of international co-operation," he said.
"And we are seeing increased levels of investigation and conviction, including in China."
He points to the Cites summit in March, at which representatives from the organisation's signatory countries agreed to take steps to fight the poaching scourge. These included using public awareness to curb demand for ivory and increased forensic tracing of seized ivory using genetic techniques.
Ms Sohl agrees there is cause for hope. The eight countries have sent to the Cites secretariat their plans for dealing with the problem. Although there is no sign of those proposals being made public, Mr Scanlon says their very existence represents a significant development that will inform a major Cites meeting in July 2014.
How you can help
Your donation to Space for Giants can help save these magnificent creatures from extinction.
£30 can support a wildlife ranger for a week to protect elephants in northern Kenya.
£50 will provide a pack that could save the life of a wildlife ranger injured protecting elephants.
£75 will support the training of a law enforcement officer on criminal justice processes, increasing the chances of successful prosecutions and higher fines for wildlife crime.
£100 could secure for ever one acre of a 60,000-acre elephant sanctuary in northern Kenya.