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Wildlife groups asked the government to declare the African elephant an endangered species and ban ivory imports, saying poachers are rapidly driving the world's largest land mammal to extinction.

In a petition Thursday to the Interior Department, the Humane Society of the United States and 24 other animal welfare organizations said the soaring price of ivory has led to wholesale massacre of elephants throughout Africa, virtually wiping out herds in many regions."As recently as 1981, there were estimated to be 1.2 million elephants in Africa," said the petition.

"(The) number dwindled to less than 800,000 in 1987 and recent reports place the number at just under 400,000 today," it added.

The African elephant "is already extinct in many portions of its range and insevere danger of extinction in a significant portion of its remaining range," the petition said, urging that the animals be granted endangered status to effectively ban ivory imports.

Among the grimmest trends, the groups said, is the shrinking size of tusks now being traded. They said the decline in average tusk size shows that the large mature elephants have already been exterminated and the ivory hunters are killing off young elephants before they can reproduce.

"The price of ivory is so high that baby elephants - elephants that are 2 and 3 years old - are being killed," said Christine Stevens, president of the Animal Welfare Institute.

The value of elephant ivory has skyrocketed in recent years, from about $4 a pound in 1970 to $80 a pound today.

While Interior Department officials said only that they would give the petition "due consideration," the wildlife groups said President Bush had partisan reasons to take a special interest in the elephant.

"The symbol of the Republican Party is going extinct," said Craig Van Note, executive vice president of a group called Monitor. "I would think that would get his attention.

Conservation groups asked the Interior Department in 1978 for endangered status for the elephant. However, the agency ruled the animal was not in immediate danger of extinction and gave it only "threatened" status.

The petitioning groups say the apparent failure of the international quota system to stop poaching makes it clear the United States must take tougher action. They also say while a U.S. ban on ivory imports would not have much impact on the world market, it would have major symbolic importance.