The number of African elephants (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis) poached in Kenya's Tsavo National Park more than doubled last year, from 48 in 2007 to 98 in 2008, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service -- numbers the likes of which have not been seen since the poaching crisis of the 1980s garnered the international support that made a 1989 ban possible. Since the beginning of this year, an additional five elephants in the park have been poached, and four more injured.

The increase comes after a decision last July by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the 1989 United Nations agreement that regulates the trade of threatened species, which agreed to let China and Japan buy 100 tons of elephant tusks in a one-time sale of African ivory stockpiles. Chinese and Japanese consumers have long been the world's first and third biggest buyers of illegal ivory. (The number-two buyer: the United States.)

The legally sold ivory came from the nations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. As many conservationists feared, this influx of legal ivory into the marketplace has apparently further emboldened poachers and black-market ivory sellers, who were already killing more elephants every year than they were when the ban on ivory sales went into effect in 1989. Kenya was one of 19 African countries that believed the ivory ban should have remained permanent.

The picture is even worse elsewhere in Kenya. So far this year in the Amboseli region near Mount Kilimanjaro, 19 elephants have been killed and another 25 wounded -- often by poisoned arrows and spears. Poisoning is just as effective as bullets, but silent, and therefore less likely to attract park rangers.

Patrick Omondi, elephant coordinator for the Kenya Wildlife Service told The Daily Telegraph, "Wherever we see the Chinese coming to work in Africa, whether it is here in Kenya, in Zimbabwe, in Congo, we see an increase in poaching." China's Kenyan embassy responded on Saturday by asking its citizens in Africa "to abide strictly by the local laws and regulations, and not engage in any trade or transportation of ivory or its products."

Omondi warns that the world financial crisis will only make things worse: fewer tourists are visiting Kenya's wildlife parks, whose anti-poaching rangers depend upon tourism for funding. African elephants are not endangered, but are considered threatened, with a wild population of about 500,000.

Elsewhere, Asia's elephants (Elephas maximus), which are endangered, are also in trouble. A report earlier this month from TRAFFIC, the WWF organization dedicated to tracking wildlife crime, found that Vietnamese ivory prices are the highest in the world, selling at US$1,500 per kilogram and up. The ivory was believed to originate in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, not from African elephants. Estimates place the wild Asian elephant population at between 38,000 and 53,000.

Borneo's critically endangered pygmy elephants (E. m. borneensis) are also in trouble, but for different reasons. The elephants love to dine on palm trees, which puts them at loggerheads with palm oil plantations. "Human-elephant conflicts occur daily around the Kinabatangan plantations," said Raymond Alfred of the WWF in a statement. Alfred points out that many elephants are being shot or poisoned. It is believed that less than 1,000 Borneo elephants remain in the wild.

Even elephants in captivity aren't completely safe. According to The New York Times, Asian elephants in North American zoos are dying from an outbreak of herpes (elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus). which has killed 20 percent of Asian elephant calves born zoos since the beginning of the decade. Scientist don't yet know how the herpes virus is transmitted, or why it affects certain elephants but not others.

Image: © Vanessa Fitzgerald