The news came during the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a summit being held in Johannesburg to discuss solutions to combating extinction amongst the world's most endangered species.
"The surge in poaching for ivory that began approximately a decade ago, the worst that Africa has experienced since the 1970s and 1980s, has been the main driver of the decline," the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported on Sunday.
Elephant poaching has risen to meet demand in markets in Asian economies such as China where ivory is a coveted commodity used in carving and ornamental accessories. But China is now taking steps to clamp down on domestic demand for ivory and has started to prosecute people involved in illegal trade and to close down local retail markets.
"China has made significant moves to combat illegal trade in wildlife," CITES' secretary general John Scanlon said.
According to the IUCN numbers, gathered from estimates across the continent, Africa's total elephant population in the areas where extensive surveys could be taken is now around 415,000, compared to 526,000 in 2006.
"Poachers have killed off some entire elephant populations in West Africa and could wipe out the remaining forest elephants unless Central African countries act now to arrest the poachers, prosecute the trafficking kingpins and tackle the corruption that allows wildlife crime to thrive," Lamine Sebogo, an elephant expert with the World Wide Fund for Nature, told the conference.
The IUCN reported there were a number of regions where systematic surveys could not be taken, making it difficult to report on what was happening to elephants in countries such as South Sudan, Liberia and savannah areas of the Central African Republic.
On top of poaching, habitat loss was a major concern, the IUCN added.
Elephants are one of the animals of concern at the CITES meeting, which goes until October 5. As part of the conference, leaders in wildlife protection hope to hammer out the draft for an international treaty to combat poaching and habitat destruction.
es/jm (AFP, dpa)