Poaching of elephants and the illegal trade in their tusks and related ivory products were out of control in 2011, with more than 2,500 animals confirmed killed and thousands of kilograms of tusks seized by customs officials around the world. This was the worst year on record since the international ivory trade ban was established in 1989, according to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

Most of the poaching—which is increasingly conducted by well-armed gangs from Asia and almost exclusively targets the elephants' valuable ivory tusks—takes place in Africa, where two African elephant species (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis, the second of which was only recognized as its own species in 2010) still have a population of around 450,000 animals. That's a far cry from the estimated 1.2 million that were living in the 1970s and the 600,000 that lived when the ivory trade ban was enacted. African elephants are listed as "Vulnerable" to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The IUCN lists Asian elephants (Elephas maximus, including three subspecies) as "Endangered," with an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 animals in existence.

Final numbers for ivory seizures are still being calculated, but TRAFFIC International reported last week that there were 13 large-scale ivory seizures in 2011. By "large scale," they mean at least 800 kilograms of ivory. The largest seizure was last month in Kenya, where a 2,575-kilogram shipment of 727 pieces of ivory was discovered in a shipping container en route to Asia. TRAFFIC points out that even this number of seizures is not a disincentive for the criminal gangs behind the smuggling because arrests rarely occur and punishments for those who are arrested are minor under existing laws.

Other large ivory seizures included a 1,100-kilogram shipment found in Vietnam in September and a 2,234-kilogram shipment in China in April. The total weight for the 13 shipments was more than 23 metric tons. There were just six such large-scale seizures in 2010, totaling 9,798 kilograms. Some shipments contained full tusks. Others contained a combination of tusks and ivory carvings.

According to TRAFFIC, these large-scale seizures represent ivory from at least 2,500 slain elephants, if not more. This does not include hundreds of smaller seizures, accounts for which are still being compiled, and probably represents a fraction of total elephant poaching in Africa and Asia as well as ivory smuggling around the world. A 2009 report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare estimated that poachers were killing more than 100 African elephants daily.

"In 23 years of compiling ivory-seizure data...this is the worst year ever for large ivory seizures," Tom Milliken, manager of TRAFFIC's Elephant Trade Information System, said in a prepared statement. "The escalating large ivory quantities involved in 2011 reflect both a rising demand in Asia and the increasing sophistication of the criminal gangs behind the trafficking. Most illegal shipments of African elephant ivory end up in either China or Thailand."

Three of the largest seizures took place in Malaysia. Another three seizures had been shipped through Malaysia before they were confiscated.

Poaching nearly disappeared after the 1989 ivory trade ban but it has come back strong in recent years. The boom has been fueled primarily by two factors: growing affluence in Asia and the greater number of shipping options. "Not only have people got more cash, but the transport infrastructure has got much better—there are more flights connecting Asian markets than ever before," James Compton, TRAFFIC senior director for Asia–Pacific, told The New York Times.

These same factors are also behind the rise in rhino poaching. In 2011 at least 443 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa, the only country that can accurately report on rhino poaching counts. This is also a high, up from 333 rhinos poached in that country in 2010.

Although it's easy to blame the booming Asian economy for much of this, it's important to remember that the U.S. is also a very large market for illegal ivory. A study released in 2008 found that Americans are the world's second-largest consumers of elephant ivory products.

Stay tuned: Elephant Week continues in two days with a rare bit of good news.

Photo: A TRAFFIC investigator inspects part of a 1.4–metric ton ivory seizure made in December in Port Klang, Malaysia. By Elizabeth John / © TRAFFIC