Entire elephant populations are dying out in many African countries due to poaching on a massive scale, wildlife regulator CITES has warned, while also hailing the continent for improving its crackdown on ivory smuggling.
More than 20,000 African elephants were poached last year alone for their tusks, which rake in thousands of dollars a kilo in Asia, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Organised crime syndicates and rebel militias looking for ways to fund their operations in Africa have become increasingly involved, eager to reap the benefits as demand in China for ivory to use in decorations and in traditional medicines has fuelled a multi-billion-dollar illicit trade.
"We are confronting a situation of industrial-scale poaching and smuggling," CITES chief John Scanlon said on Friday.
But Scanlon also told Al Jazeera that there has been an "enhanced enforcement effort" against the illegal trade.
"Over the last year we have seen east African states - Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya - really step up their effort and it is reflected in the number of seizures that are now taking place in the African continent, primarily within east Africa rather than Asia," he said.
'Most acute crisis'
The poaching crisis is the most acute in central Africa, where at least 60 percent of all elephants have been lost in the past decade, CITES said.
"If the same trend continues, in the next 10 years, we may lose practically all of the elephants in central Africa," CITES senior scientific officer Tom de Meulenaer warned.
In western Africa, "only a few elephants are left," he said, adding that elephants were now extinct in Senegal, just like Somalia and Sudan in the east of the continent.
The only viable population in West Africa is in the park that stretches between Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger.
While the number of elephants poached in Africa last year is staggering, it actually signals a levelling off after a decade of skyrocketing slaughter.
In 2011, about 25,000 of the world's largest land mammals were killed, and the number was around 22,000 in 2012.
Although the numbers have come down some, Scanlon stressed that the 2013 level remained "dangerously high".
"The levels of illegal killings are exceeding the natural birthrate, so overall the population of the African elephant is in decline," he said.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 10 million elephants roaming across Africa.
That number fell to 1.2 million by 1980 and currently stands at about 500,000, according to CITES.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies