Fay helped conduct the 2006 census with partial funding from the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
"Even if you are looking at the most optimistic estimates [closer to 2,000 left], that means your elephants will last three years [if poaching continues at current rates], which is catastrophic," Fay added.
"There is a massacre going on, unless something drastic happens."
To the chagrin of many conservationists, the first officially sanctioned ivory trade in a decade happened in October. The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allowed Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to sell 108 tons of government ivory stock to Chinese and Japanese buyers.
(See related: "1st Legal Ivory Auction in Ten Years Yields $1,300,000" [October 28, 2008].)
"Just in the past two years, the world thinks it is okay to buy ivory again," Fay said. "Anyone who thinks you can control ivory on the market is dreaming."
CITES officials argue that there is no proven connection between controlled sales and increased poaching.
"In fact, levels of illegal ivory trade decreased in the two years following the first one-off sale [in 1999]," CITES spokesperson Juan-Carlos Vasquez said in an email.
"Poaching levels appear to be more closely related to governance problems and political instability in certain regions of the continent ."
After the 2006 survey and graphic images of the slaughtered elephants captured global attention, Chad's president burned ivory stocks and donated armed trucks to the park for poaching patrols.
But political turmoil last year and a change in park management complicated the situation, making it more difficult to monitor wildlife, Fay said.
2007 was the worst year on record for poaching, according to WCS pilot Darren Potgieter, who conducts aerial anti-poaching patrols and censuses.
"It was all-out war," he said. "We lost five guards and one army lieutenant, compared with six guards and two regular employees in the preceding 16 years, and hundreds of elephants."
The good news, according to Fay and Potgieter, is that since May 2008, WCS and the Chadian government have been able to make daily flyovers of the park with a newly designated anti-poaching patrol plane. Guard forces are also increasing, with help from the Chadian Army.
The poaching situation has improved this year, according to conservationists. "Already this aircraft has helped the park guard force to locate poached elephants and poachers," Fay said. "We are optimistic that with increased armed protection we can keep a lid on the poaching this year."
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