JOHANNESBURG - African ministers and experts meet next week in Botswana to chart ways to stamp out a spike in elephant killings fuelled by a growing demand for ivory in Asia.
"Poaching of elephants and associated ivory trafficking remain of grave concern," said Richard Thomas, spokesman for the animal conservation group Traffic.
The three-day meeting opening on Monday in Gaborone has been organised by the Botswana government and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Poaching has risen sharply in Africa in recent years and the illegal ivory trade has tripled since 1998, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Large-scale seizures of ivory destined for Asia have more than doubled since 2009 and reached an all-time high in 2011.
The meeting expects to adopt a pact that will commit signatories, including the biggest ivory markets such as China, to demonstrate political will at the highest level in the fight against poaching and ivory trafficking.
IUCN said increasing poaching levels and loss of habitat are threatening the survival of elephants in central Africa as well as in previously secure havens in west, southern and east Africa.
There are less than half a million elephants left in Africa compared with 1.2 million in 1980 and 10 million in 1900.
Poachers are becoming more sophisticated using helicopters and automatic weapons as the price of ivory on the black market shot up tenfold in the past decade to more than $2,000 per kilogramme.
The tusk of an adult 30-year-old elephant can weigh around 20 kilogrammes (44 pounds), according to experts.
"The situation is dramatic," said Stephanie Vergniault, who founded the charity SOS Elephants in Chad.
She warns that "in 10 years there will be no African elephants."
Most of the ivory ends up in the Middle East and Asia, particularly in Thailand and China.
Ivory funding extremists?
Beyond worries of the species' survival, elephant poaching has given rise to security and terrorism concerns.
Proceeds from ivory are believed to be financing groups such as Somalia's Al-Qaeda linked Shebab, Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army and Sudan's Janjaweed militia, according to conservation charities.
The Gaborone meeting is a follow-up to the Bangkok talks held in March under the aegis of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) at which eight countries were accused of failing to do enough to tackle ivory trafficking.
Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda as well as transit countries Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and top markets China and Thailand were identified as making insufficient efforts to curb the trade.
The next CITES meeting takes place in July and will "decide whether the eight countries are to face disciplinary measures," said IUCN's global species specialist Lynne Labanne.
All countries have to undertake to work together to curb the slaughter of elephants because "one country cannot fight trafficking alone", and penalties must be toughened, said Maine Sebogo, head of the global conservation group WWF in Botswana.
"We must go beyond speeches and move on to take concrete action," said Congolese Minister of Forestry Henri Djombo.
There is also a need to take urgent action to protect the elephants in previously safe zones of eastern and southern African countries.
Hundreds of elephants were this year poisoned in Zimbabwe for their tusks.
South Africa, which is already buckling under an unprecedented wave of rhino poaching, has so far been spared of elephant killings, but it is worried.
"Ivory poaching is now a reality in countries north of our border, including northern Mozambique," said General Johan Jooste, who heads the anti-poaching task team at South Africa's famous Kruger National Park.
"We are hoping to use the expertise we have gained in fighting rhino poaching to confront ivory poachers," he said.
Ivory trade is banned under the CITES. The illegal ivory trade is estimated to be worth up to $10 billion a year.
Elephant tusks are used to make ornaments and rhinoceros horns are used in traditional medicine.
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African elephant survival top at Botswana talks