It's a big business year for illegal African ivory. A record number of ivory seizures were made globally this year, produced by an enormous surge in elephant poaching.
Central Africa is most brutally affected, with most of the illegal African ivory collected for China or Thailand where most of the tusks are made into jewelry and art carvings. Tom Milliken in Zimbabwe manages Traffic, which operates an Elephant Trade Information System. He says
"A conservative estimate of the weight of ivory seized in the 13 largest seizures in 2011 puts the figure at more than 23 tonnes, a figure that probably represents some 2,500 elephants, possibly more."
The Guardian reports that Millliken also says that the 13 large-scale seizures of over 800kg of ivory recorded in 2011, compares with just six seized in 2010. He notes that's the largest amount of seizures in the more than two decades since he's been operating his database.
The increased poaching and illegal trade are the result of China's decision to make an investment drive into Africa to obtain the mineral and energy resources it needs to fuel its economic growth. Milliken comments,
"We've reached a point in Africa's history where there are more Asian nationals on the continent than ever before. They have contacts with the end-use market and now they are at the source in Africa. This is all adding up to an unprecedented assault on elephants and other wildlife.".
He concedes it is possible that some of the ivory getting into illegal markets could be coming from African government stockpiles from old seizures. But Milliken points out that trade figures and wildlife monitors show a rise in elephant killings. Most of the kilings he notes are occurring in the Congo, but poaching is also going on in Zimbabwe, Zambia, northern Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya.
In 1989, a global ban placed on the ivory trade was credited with stemming the unstoppable slaughter of African elephants in Africa's central region. Since then, African governments have sanctioned occasional auctions from its stockpiles.
It's believed Africa's elephant population varies widely from 400,000 to 700,000. Some southern African states like Botswana have large and growing populations and in South Africa burgeoning elephant populations are raising concerns that they are damaging the environment.