Washington: In a shocking revelation, a most comprehensive survey of elephant poaching to date has estimated that 100,000 African elephants were illegally killed between 2010-2012, threatening that many elephant populations may be wiped out in the next 10 years.
This level of poaching has led to a decrease of 2-3 percent of the population across the continent, said researchers, confirming that the ivory trade has reached unsustainable levels.
"What we are seeing is that there are a number of (elephant) populations that are at really high risk of being wiped out. Some populations could be completely gone in 10 years," cautioned George Wittemyer, a conservation ecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Wittemyer and his team examined elephant demographic data and analysed causes of death to obtain evidence-based estimates of local, regional and continental poaching rates - meaning how many out of every 100 living elephants are illegally killed each year.
The researchers began by looking at wild elephants in Kenya`s Samburu National Reserve, where every birth and death has been recorded since 1998.
They used surveys of elephant carcasses to determine whether each death was attributable to natural causes, to poaching or to other causes.
They found robust evidence that the rates of illegal killing began to surge in 2009.
Moreover, the team showed that the poaching rates were strongly correlated with increases in the local black market price of ivory, and with the seizures of ivory destined for China.
Wittemyer and his team also identified proxy variables that were correlated with killing rates, including Chinese household consumption and expenditure - related to the demand for ivory "as well as an index of local government corruption and poverty rates.
They used these to further extrapolate their model to 306 elephant populations across Africa.
At the continental scale, the poaching rate was approximately 7 percent per year from 2010 to 2012, the team calculated.
This translates into an average of 33,630 elephants annually, based on current population estimates.
"This is probably the most important publication for elephant conservation in the last 10 years and one that we had all waited for with bated breath," said Fiona Maisels, an adviser for the Wildlife Conservation Society`s wildlife survey and monitoring programmes in Central Africa.
The "proportion of elephants estimated to have been lost annually is highly cautious, but still shockingly high", she added.
The study appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.