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More African elephants are dying than being born, study shows

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Study estimates that 100,000 elephants have been killed by poachers in the last three years alone

Lukas Vermeer / Flickr

Africa's fragile elephant population may be declining even faster than previously estimated, according to a major study published this week. The paper, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimates that 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012, driven largely by increased demand for ivory in China and other parts of Asia. Over the past decade, the percentage of African elephant deaths due to poaching has increased from about 25 percent to between 60 and 70 percent, suggesting that deaths are now outpacing births on the continent.

"We are shredding the fabric of elephant society and exterminating populations across the continent," George Wittemyer, a professor at Colorado State University and lead author of the study, told BBC News.

demand for ivory has ravaged Africa's population

Quantifying elephant population levels has always posed challenges, but Wittemyer and his team based their findings on data that was meticulously gathered at a reserve in Kenya over the past 16 years. They then combined those numbers with existing estimates from other regions, and extrapolated killing rates for the continent as a whole. The results, they say, are the most scientific estimates to date, and they paint a sobering picture.

According to the study, more than 40,000 elephants were killed by poachers in 2011 — the worst year for elephant deaths — resulting in a 3 percent decline in species levels across Africa. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) had previously estimated that just 25,000 elephants were killed in 2011.

Much of the bloodshed has been driven by increased demand for ivory, which surged to over $2,000 per kilogram on the Chinese market earlier this year. Chinese officials have cracked down on the illicit trade in recent months, though conservationists have long called for stronger actions and international cooperation.