By Julianna Kettlewell
BBC News Online science staff
East Asia's booming ivory trade could send elephant numbers into freefall if the current ban on ivory selling is temporarily lifted, campaigners say.
The ivory trade is still booming
They fear poachers will use the cover of a planned one-off sale of African ivory stockpiles to go on a killing spree of the threatened animals.
The Far East's love for ivory could help push elephants to the brink of extinction within 20 years, they argue.
Numbers have already dwindled from one million in 1980 to just 500,000 today.
South Africa, Namibia and Botswana have received permission under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to sell 60 tonnes of government ivory stocks after May 2004.
Much of the ivory has been confiscated from poachers.
But a group of conservation organisations, headed by Save the Elephants, is concerned that an injection of ivory into the market could wet the global appetite for tusk products.
And in turn, this could encourage illegal poachers to try to meet the demand.
Save the Elephants sent undercover researchers to China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to find out what current global demand is like.
The researchers, Esmond Martin and Dan Stiles, found 54,000 pieces of ivory on sale in the five markets.
"This suggests roughly 27 tonnes of ivory is still in circulation globally more than 10 years after the trade was banned worldwide," Daniel Stiles said.
"That translates to about 3,500 tusk-bearing elephants and, probably, to the slaughter of more than 5,000 because poachers commonly mow down whole herds, including young."
Although overall the ivory trade has shrunk in East Asia since the ban was introduced in 1989, there is still a worrying quantity of artefacts on sale, especially in China and Hong Kong, say the researchers.
"I found 35,000 pieces of ivory for sale in Hong Kong," said Esmond Martin. "But it wasn't in the back-street markets - it was in all the major tourist areas, the expensive hotels. People are buying it."
Some countries want to sell ivory to pay for conservation
In order to disguise the fact they are selling illegal ivory from recently killed elephants, retailers will often "antique" it - they make it look old by smoking it to give a yellowish appearance.
"Anybody who thinks the ivory trade is dead and buried needs to think again - it is very much alive," said Will Travers, director of the Born Free Foundation.
Save the Elephants and its co-funding organisations believe that if more ivory enters an already booming market, poaching could drive elephants to extinction within the next two decades.
"If the ivory ban is undermined by any sales at all, it could have a cascading effect," said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, head of Save the Elephants.
"Although the ivory trade has been depressed, we fear that could be reversed if the sales go ahead."
Cites has said the profits from new ivory sales, estimated to reach $5m, will be spent on elephant conservation.
But these campaigners say the cost of tackling the increased poaching that would follow could dwarf any profits the sales might realise.
"We feel that any lift in the ban should be very strictly monitored," Iain Douglas-Hamilton said. "That is the only way we can stop things getting out of hand."