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Africa without elephants? Though such a prospect would be appalling, it's the direction in which the world is heading. Why? Because of short-sighted consumers of jewelry and trinkets made of ivory and because of greedy poachers.

The trend is unmistakably clear.Sixty years ago, more than 10 million elephants roamed the vast plains and forests of Africa. As recently as 10 years ago, the number was down to 1.5 million. Now it has dropped to an estimated 650,000. At this rate, the elephant could be extinct in another decade or so.

If the elephant dies out, so could various other animals. That's because the elephant largely shapes the environment it shares with other species. The enormous appetite and foraging habits of the elephant produce conditions in woodlands and grasslands that allow other plant-eating mammals to follow in their wake. These animals, in turn, provide sustenance for flesh-eating predators.

The problem is as hard to solve as it is easy to describe. Declare the African elephant an endangered species? That was done 11 years ago, but the carnage continued. Halt the importation of ivory? Maybe. But the long history of economic sanctions shows that when one country stops buying a product, another country moves in to fill the vacuum. Get tough with the illegal poachers? Of course. But as the elephant dies out and ivory gets scarcer, its price soars - increasing the incentive to poachers and to the corrupt government officials that sometimes abet them in Africa.

About all that's clear is that if the African elephant is allowed to die out, the disappearance of this great, graceful animal will stand forever as a monument to human stupidity.