African and Asian nations on Tuesday agreed on urgent measures to tackle the illegal ivory trade, from the slaughter of elephants to the trafficking of their valuable tusks to the Far East.
The deal comes after top officials and experts from 30 states met in Botswana this week to tackle an upsurge in elephant poaching as demand for ivory soars from countries such as China and Thailand.
Countries that are home to elephants, and those where their ivory ends up, agreed to "urgent measures to halt the illegal trade and secure elephant populations across Africa," the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Botswanan government said in a statement.
The measures include a "zero tolerance approach", which includes maximum sentences for wildlife crimes and boosting the ability of national agencies to deal with highly-organised poaching syndicates.
The meeting also agreed that ivory trafficking should be classified as a "serious crime", paving the way for international cooperation such as mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, and extradition.
"The summit is the first-ever meeting focusing on the dynamics of the entire ivory value chain," the statement said.
Conservation groups at the African Elephant Summit warned this week Africa could lose 20 percent of its elephant population within a decade.
Africa and Asia must 'join forces'
The large animals, a key tourist attraction in Africa, are increasingly hunted by criminal gangs and militias using sophisticated equipment, while high-level corruption helps move the ivory off the continent, summit organisers said.
Proceeds are in some cases used to "fund armed militias and rebel groups engaged in internal and cross border conflicts," according to the IUCN.
Six countries signed the pact but all 30 states attending the summit agreed on the measures and committed to inking the deal, Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, told AFP.
"We have consensus, it's good news."
Among those who agreed to the measures were key elephant nations such as Gabon, Kenya, Niger and Zambia, transit countries Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia and ivory destination states, including China and Thailand.
These countries will strengthen co-operation between their law enforcement agencies and create mechanisms at home to "allow immediate action" against anyone involved in poaching or the illegal ivory trade.
According to a report by CITES, TRAFFIC and IUCN, an estimated 22,000 elephants were illegally killed across the continent last year, as poaching reached "unacceptably elevated levels."
"We are very pleased with the result of the summit, especially as it involves some of the most important countries along the illegal ivory value chain," said Julia Marton-Lefevre, IUCN director general.
It was hoped that the outcomes would help boost wider efforts to tackle trade in other hard-hit species such as rhinos and pangolins, she added.
Africa's elephant population is estimated at 500,000 animals, compared with 1.2 million in 1980 and 10 million in 1900, and they are listed as vulnerable.
"Our window of opportunity to tackle the growing illegal ivory trade is closing and if we do not stem the tide, future generations will condemn our unwillingness to act," said Botswana President Ian Khama whose country holds Africa's largest elephant population.
"Now is the time for Africa and Asia to join forces to protect this universally valued and much needed species."
Researchers believe that poverty and weak governance in African countries where elephants live are driving forces behind a spike in poaching.
Elephant tusks and other body parts are prized in Asia and the Middle East for ornaments, as talismans, and for use in traditional medicine.
Ivory trade is banned under the CITES, yet the illegal trade is estimated to be worth up to $10 billion (7.4 billion euros) a year.
The price of ivory on the black market shot up tenfold in the past decade to more than $2,000 per kilogramme. On average, an adult elephant tusk can weigh 20 kg (44 pounds), according to experts.