"The elephant death rate from poaching throughout Africa is about 8 percent a year based on recent studies, which is actually higher than the 7.4 percent annual death rate that led to the international ivory trade ban nearly 20 years ago," said Samuel Wasser, a UW biology professor, lead author of the research paper.
But the poaching death rate in the late 1980s was based on a population that numbered more than 1 million. Today, the total African elephant population is less than 470,000.
"If the trend continues, there won't be any elephants except in fenced areas with a lot of enforcement to protect them," said Wasser.
According to Wasser, elephants are on a course that could mean most remaining large groups will be extinct by 2020 unless renewed public pressure brings about heightened enforcement.
Wasser's laboratory has developed DNA tools that can determine which elephant population ivory came from. That is important because often poachers attack elephants in one country but ship the contraband ivory from an adjacent nation to throw off law enforcement.
Evidence gathered from recent major ivory seizures shows conclusively that the ivory is not coming from a broad geographic area but rather that hunters are targeting specific herds.
"With such information, authorities can beef up enforcement efforts and focus them in specific areas where poaching is known to occur as a means of preventing elephants from being killed," said Wasser.
"But that will only happen if there is sufficient public pressure to marshal funding for a much larger international effort to halt the poaching," he added.
"The situation is worse than ever before and the public is unaware," said Wasser.
"It's very serious because elephants are an incredibly important species. They keep habitats open so other species that depend on such ecosystems can use them. Without elephants, there will be major habitat changes, with negative effects on the many species that depend on the lost habitat," he added.
Researchers determine that the only way to curb the trade is to focus enforcement in areas where the ivory comes from in the first place, before it enters the complex, global crime trade network.