By Adam Edwards
Conservationists warn that unless action is taken soon, Africa's iconic herds of elephants could disappear from the landscape.
"If we do not turn the situation around quickly, the future of the elephant in Africa is doomed," said Professor Lee White, who heads Gabon's national parks, in an interview with the BBC.
It's a chilling premonition ahead of the 3-14 March meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which controls the world's ivory trade.
Across Africa, elephants are being pushed to the edge of extinction. In Gabon alone, between 44 and 77 percent of the elephants have been killed since 2004, according to research carried out by Gabon's national parks service.
And while the wild populations are falling, Africa's orphanages are filling up.
On a recent visit to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust on the outskirts of Nairobi, I watched as a herd of tiny calves emerged from the forest, crowding around their keeper. They jostled between each other to get close to him, delicately caressing his bare arms with their trunks. It was such a gentle, tender act that it was hard to believe that just a few weeks ago many of the traumatised calves saw their entire families butchered in front of them.
But these elephants at the Trust's elephant and rhino orphanage are the lucky ones. Across Africa, thousands of other calves were not so fortunate, killed alongside their mothers or left to starve in a lonely jungle clearing by poachers hoping to cash in on Asia's insatiable demand for ivory.
In 2012, as many as 35,000 to 50,000 elephants were killed across Africa, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), with poachers going to extreme lengths to earn just a fraction of the U.S.$20,000 each tusk can fetch on the streets of Asia.
Nowhere is this more true than in Central Africa, where organised gangs have started using rocket-propelled grenades to hunt the region's critically endangered forest elephants. More....