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Protecting African elephants suffered a set back last year. In Asia and Africa, customs agents seized at least 20 tons of black market elephant ivory. That's twice the amount seized in any previous year.

Here's NPR's John Nielsen.

JOHN NIELSEN: In harbors like the Port of Hong Kong, giant cranes pull several million metal crates out of container ships every year. Last summer, customs agents decided to take a closer look at a crate that had just come in from Cameroon. This crate was supposed to be full of plywood, but when the customs agents ran it through a giant X-ray machine they saw a huge cache of elephant tusks hidden behind a false metal wall.

CRAWFORD ALLAN: I wish I could show you the X-ray, which shows the pointed curved shape of the tops of the tusks poking out of the pile.

NIELSEN: Crawford Allan, a smuggling expert with a non-profit group called TRAFFIC, says five tons of ivory came out of that crate. Tusks cut from the heads of several hundred dead elephants. Not too long ago a haul that big would have seemed freakish to Crawford, who tracks ivory seizures for the United Nations. But this year it was routine.

ALLAN: We're talking about seizures of six tons and five tons and two tons and three tons on a fairly consistent basis.

NIELSEN: In 2006 there were major ivory busts in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Kenya, India and the Philippines. Estimates of the total haul range from 20 tons to 24 tons, and wildlife consultant William Clark says those are just the busts that were made public.

WILLIAM CLARK: So we don't know if the reports that are in the media even reflect all of the ivory that has been seized, and I tend to think otherwise.

NIELSEN: Clark is a consultant to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. He's been tracking ivory smuggling since the 1970s. He says the market all but dried up after 1989 when countries agreed to a global ban on ivory sales. But 10 years ago, the trade started coming back to life.

Clark says economic growth in Asia helped revive this trade by making it possible for more people to buy ivory products. That has helped to drive the price way up.

CLARK: A year ago, prime quality ivory was selling for about $200 a kilo and now it's going for $750. So it's a hot market and people are getting into it.

NIELSEN: It is also a very profitable market, which is why Clark thinks much of it is now controlled by major crime cartels that often have extremely close ties to the drug trade.

CLARK: An elephant tusk has a hollow end and that hollow end has been on several occasions packed with drugs. It's a big logistical initiative, comparable to any international business. And on top of this, there has to be a layer of criminality. So it's very sophisticated.

NIELSEN: What's not clear - at least not yet - is where this ivory is coming from. One possibility is that a lot of it is coming out of basements and storage rooms in Africa where it was hidden years ago by people who were waiting for the price to rise.

But another possibility is that an unseen poaching crisis is now raging in central Africa. There, dense forest cover often makes it hard to quantify the carnage. Elephant expert Mike Fay of the Wildlife Conservation Society recently went to Africa to look for evidence of this kind of poaching. At one point, while flying over a clearing in Chad, he spotted a camp full of well-armed men.

MIKE FAY: And I see this guy pointing his AK-47 at the airplane. And then we flew over one more time so I could get a picture and I see his shoulder going dunk, dunk, dunk, dunk. And then the guy's shooting at us. And over the next several days, we located three or four elephant massacre sites. Some of them with 15, 20 elephants pretty much piled up one after the other with their tusks removed and none of the meat taken.

NIELSEN: If those tusks got shipped to Asia, the odds are pretty good that they got through. Even in record years for seizures, customs officials estimate that they find just 10 percent of the ivory that they're looking for. If that was true last year, it means that at least 180 tons of ivory was successfully smuggled out of Africa.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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