By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- Efforts to protect endangered African elephants from the threat of extinction are being undermined by a burgeoning ivory smuggling network run by Asian crime gangs and by a "rampant trade" in illegal ivory on auction Web sites such as eBay, according to two new reports.
Ivory trading has been outlawed since 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), following a collapse in the African elephant population which saw numbers decline from 1.3 million in 1979 to just 300,000 by 1998.
But a new report by wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC warns that large-scale ivory smuggling to Asian countries including China and Japan is threatening to undermine conservation efforts, with around 20,000 elephants still estimated to be poached every year.
Based on an analysis of 12,400 ivory seizures since 1989, the study's main author, Tom Miliken, said that current regulations were having little effect in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Nigeria.
"With myriad conflict zones, Central Africa is currently hemorrhaging ivory, and these three countries are major conduits for trafficking illicit ivory from the region to international markets, particularly in Asia," said Miliken.
In a separate report, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) claimed last week to have found 2,200 ivory items listed for sale on eBay, most breaching international laws on wildlife trading which limit the sale of ivory items to "antiques" pre-dating 1947.
Future restrictions on ivory trading are due to be discussed at next month's CITES convention at The Hague in the Netherlands with African nations in dispute over the best way forward.
In 2002 a series of one-off sales were allowed by Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, which have healthy and well-monitored populations. Botswana, backed by other southern African countries, now wants to establish an annual quota system that would allow it to export up to eight tons per year.
But Kenya, supported by Mali, the DRC and six others, wants a 20-year moratorium on all ivory sales, arguing that any trade encourages poaching.
Kenya, where wildlife tourism is a key source of income, has been battling to control rising levels of animal poaching within its national parks.
Last weekend three park rangers and four suspected poachers were killed in a shootout in the Tsavo East National Park, close to the Somali border, where illegal killings have risen from four in 2003 to 14 last year.
Most smuggled ivory ends up in China, Taiwan or Japan, with the Philippines acting as major transit country, according to TRAFFIC figures. There are currently around 92 ivory seizures a month worldwide, while the number of large hauls of more than one ton has almost doubled in the past eight years.
In August a record three-ton haul of tusks -- estimated to have been taken from approximately 100 elephants -- was confiscated as it was being unloaded from a freighter in Osaka, Japan.
"This demonstrates greater sophistication, organization and finance behind the illegal movement of ever larger volumes of ivory from Africa to Asia," said Susan Lieberman, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Global Species Programme.
Robbie Marsland of the IFAW said that Web sites used to sell ivory and other animal products had a responsibility to ban such activities and welcomed assurances by eBay to review its wildlife policies.
"Only a global ban on all ivory sales will remove the cover under which this criminal activity currently operates," he said. "Failure to do so is tantamount to signing a death sentence for thousands more of these endangered species."
Richard Thomas of Traffic told CNN that Internet sales of ivory was potentially a major problem that was difficult to combat, but said eBay had been good at monitoring and removing anything illegally posted for sale on the site. There were other sites without restrictions in place, he warned.
In a statement reported by Reuters, a spokesman for eBay in London said it operated policies to "restrict the sale of ivory in accordance with existing international law" and was committed to working with IFAW to tackle the problem of illegal ivory sales.
Around 20,000 African elephants are killed by poachers every year, conservationists estimate.