Will 2012 Be a Good Year for Elephants?

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Karel Prinsloo / AP

A Kenya Wildlife Ranger stands in front of an elephant herd in the Tsavo East National Park, March 9, 2010.

A new year offers the hope of a fresh start. Few need it more than African elephants. Last year saw a record number of large-scale seizures of illegal ivory—up 200% over 2010—weighing a total of 23 tonnes. That’s 2,500 dead elephants.

Who’s responsible? Chinese criminal gangs, feeding an ever-growing appetite for ivory back home, says Tom Milliken, anelephant expert at TRAFFIC, a UN-sponsored wildlife trade monitoring network. “Asian countries in general, but particularly China, are targeting the natural resource bounty of Africa to sustain economic growth at home,” he wrote in an email to TIME. “For many Asians, Africa represents a ‘wild west’ where one can get rich.”

More than a million Asians now live in Africa, says Milliken, and criminal elements within those immigrant communities regularly smuggle valuable goods like ivory out of ports in Kenya and Tanzania. “The criminal syndicates behind these movements of ivory are adapting all the time,” he writes, noting that traffickers’ favorite route this year – overland from Vietnam into remote Chinese provinces – may shift following several recent seizures by customs officials. Now TRAFFIC suspects they’re exploring a different route: from Cambodia into Laos and then into Yunnan, China.

While the demand for ivory in China as a luxury product is nothing new, the buying power of its people is. Chinese authorities are working hard to detect the shipments — making nearly two ivory seizures ever day — yet their efforts are swamped by the scale of demand. TRAFFIC says that China must up its law enforcement capabilities both at home and in outreach programs in Africa if the situation is to improve. For the elephants’ sake, it might be a New Years resolution worth making.

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