Danielle Elliot, CBS News
New data shows that elephant poaching continues to threaten
the populations of Africa's "keystone" species. In 2012, more than 22,000
elephants were killed.
It's a drop from 2011, when a record 25,000 of the continent's
remaining 400,000 to 500,000 elephants were killed by poachers.
"We're very disappointed with the number. Any elephants
being poached are too many elephants being poached," the World Wildlife Fund's
Richard Carroll, vice president of the organization's Africa Program, said in
an interview with CBSNews.com.
Elephants are poached for their ivory tusks. The demand comes mostly from consumers in China, who see ivory as a status symbol. A pound of ivory now sells for more than $1,000 on the streets of Beijing.
In an attempt to take away the incentive behind elephant
poaching, a global ban on ivory trading went into effect in 1989. Governments
around the world have since stepped up penalties for poaching and trading.
In November, the U.S. government destroyed more than six
tons of ivory tusks, carvings and jewelry U.S. law enforcement confiscated from
smugglers, traders and tourists. The items were worth millions of dollars.
Putting an end to poaching is crucial to the African
ecosystem, says Carroll. This is especially true in Central Africa, where
populations have been reduced by more than 70 percent.
"In the dense forest in Central Africa...
they feed on the bark of 70 species of trees," Carroll explained. "They really
create habitat for other wildlife in the ecosystems and they're extremely
important, the whole ecosystem has evolved around them."
The species helps germinate trees and
spread seeds. They're also natural bulldozers, clearing paths for other forest
animals. Knocking down trees allows light into the dense forests,
entering through the space in the treetops.
"If elephants are eliminated the forest
itself will eventually die," Carroll said, describing the "very, very dense
forests" full of "tall, high trees" where you "never see two species of the
same tree," because there is such high biodiversity.
While the WWF hoped for greater
declines, the latest numbers come with a silver lining. The decline "does possibly indicate" that the global efforts
are having a positive effect, Carroll said.
"Clearly this year the elephant crisis
has reached very, very high levels of political awareness. Across Africa,
governments destroyed ivory stock, [the U.S.] destroyed ivory stock, it's maybe
starting to pay off... So there are encouraging signs, but we're far from out of