By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - More African elephants are being illegally slaughtered for their ivory than are being born each year with organized criminal gangs cashing in on runaway poaching which could soon threaten populations in some regions, a report said on Wednesday.
Demand for ivory as an ornamental item is soaring in Asia, driven by the rising purchasing power of the region's newly affluent classes, alongside growing Chinese investment in Africa and demand for its resources.
The report by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the International Union for Conservation of Nature and wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC said gangs involved in the trade ran little risk of being caught.
"Organized criminal networks are cashing in on the elephant poaching crisis, trafficking ivory in unprecedented volumes and operating with relative impunity and with little fear of prosecution," said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC's ivory trade expert.
At sites under observation by the Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme, which are home to about 40 percent of Africa's elephants, the report said 17,000 animals were killed in 2011, or 7.4 percent of the population in those areas.
"Healthy elephant populations have a natural annual growth rate of between 5 and 6 percent," the report said.
"If this trend continues over a number of years, current poaching levels will lead to significant population declines across much of the continent."
The killing rate has been accelerating. Around 11,500 elephants were estimated to have been killed illegally in these areas in 2010.
Data from the first six months of 2012 suggest its final toll will be similar to 17,000 animals killed in 2011.
The overall number of elephants being taken for their ivory is almost certainly higher as many parts of the continent are not being monitored effectively for such activity.
Poaching levels are especially alarming in central Africa countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo, but there has also been an upsurge in countries such as Mozambique in the south and Cameroon in the west.
"Increasing poaching levels, as well as loss of habitat are threatening the survival of African elephant populations in central Africa as well as previously secure populations in west, southern and eastern Africa," the report said.
Africa's elephant population varies. Estimates for numbers in Botswana are as high as 150,000 or more but in parts of central and west Africa the animal is highly endangered.
Killings of thousands of elephants for their ivory in the 1970s and 1980s cut numbers to an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 animals in 1990 before better controls led to a revival to between 470,000 and 690,000 by 2007.
"Since then, however, the tide seems to have turned," the report said. "Poaching levels have been increasing steadily over much of the continent since 2006."
The poaching of rhinos for the horns - worth more than their weight in gold - is also escalating especially in South Africa where the vast majority of the animals are found.
According to the latest data released on Wednesday by the South African government, 146 rhinos have been lost to poachers since the start of the year, over two per day. In 2012, 668 were killed, 50 percent more than the 448 taken in 2011.
The report's release coincides with a CITES meeting in Bangkok where rules governing wildlife trade are hammered out.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)