The number of African elephants killed by hunters and poachers has soared to 52,000 a year, sparking key ivory-trade nations into action. This week, they agreed on urgent measures to protect the majestic giants

In Swahili, "tokomeza" means to terminate. When Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete launched Operation Tokomeza, with its shoot-to-kill orders to deal with elephant poachers, he wasn't mincing his words.

In the latter part of the 20th century, the same policy had been the key initiative in temporarily stopping the decimation of East Africa's herds.

Introducing it to Tanzania was not a step to be taken lightly. But a crisis point had been reached. The President warned the country's MPs that the population of elephants now stood at just 15 per cent of the 350,000 there were 20 years ago.

The country's porous borders, lack of enough scanners at the country's biggest port and poor ocean patrols have led to it becoming a poaching hub.

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It is hard to know who is involved in the highest level of poaching, because these people have ivory-processing factories and they collect ivory from all over the world, says Tanzanian Government spokesman Karamaga Canisius. "We don't have specific names due to the lack of a mechanism to trace containers."

For example, a container is loaded in Tanzania with ivory, shipped to South Africa, where more ivory is loaded, shipped back to Tanzania in transit and then heads to Dubai, and so forth. Most seizures from Africa seem to have come from Tanzania because of how the network operates. But it is clear that most of the consignments are destined for Asia, especially China and Vietnam.

So this week, key countries in the movement of illegal ivory around the world agreed on urgent measures to halt the illegal trade and secure elephant populations across Africa.

Meeting in Botswana at the first-ever summit to focus on the entire ivory value chain, they agreed on 14 measures including classifying wildlife trafficking as a serious crime.

This will unlock international law enforcement co-operation provided by the UN, such as mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, extradition and other tools to hold criminals accountable.

The measures were agreed on by key African elephant-range states, including Gabon, Kenya, Niger and Zambia, ivory transit states including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia and ivory destination states such as China and Thailand.

"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 President Ian Khama of Botswana.

As British Prime Minister David Cameron met the Chinese Premier in the Great Hall of the People this week, there were so many metaphorical elephants in the room - human rights, trade, and more - that the tragic fate of the world's largest land mammal scarcely crossed anyone's mind.

But the epidemic of elephant slaughter now consuming Africa is more potent than it has ever been. It would not be an overstatement to claim that the row of Chinese politicians in the Great Hall represented the front line in the war on ivory.

It is burgeoning Chinese demand that daily raises the price on the head of the African elephant.

Britain, too, has elephant blood on its hands. In 2008, in spite of dire warnings of the consequences, the UK voted to allow China to take part in a one-off sale of legal ivory auctioned by South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe - whose elephant populations were regarded at the time as relatively healthy. The stockpile of 108 tons was sold the following November to buyers from China and Japan.

The Chinese had claimed they had tightened up their enforcement procedures when they sought permission to take part in the sale, but conservationists warned that if they did, it would ramp up demand, make the laundering of illegal ivory into the market easier, and lead to a major increase in elephant poaching across Africa. All this has since happened.

The latest estimate from the University of Washington shows as many as 52,000 elephants may now be killed a year in Africa.

International multibillion-dollar criminal industries are never black and white and, when the world's most magnificent and valuable animals are surrounded by the world's poorest people, innocent folk get caught in the crossfire.

Magreth Kajoro, 73, returned to her mud-walled house in northwest Tanzania just in time to see her son, Kipara Issa, being taken away by police, in front of his children.

Officers were following reports that ivory and a gun were hidden in the house. Neither was found but hours later, Kipara was dead.

Police reports issued later show the officers acquired vital information from the exercise about eight other suspected poachers.

Operation Tokomeza was suspended last month while investigations into alleged killings associated with it are done. Meanwhile, Kipara's mother and widow have six children to raise by themselves - just some of the victims of Africa's ivory war.Independent