Poachers killed 22,000 African elephants in 2012, study shows

A new United Nations report 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 -- but not enough of a drop, says the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“We’re very disappointed with the number. Any elephants being poached are too many elephants being poached,” the WWF’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 the woods.”

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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