Elephant and Rhino poaching surged to record levels in 2011 and an increase in illegal tiger hunting makes the species' extinction a real near-term threat with only about 3,200 of the big cats left in the wild, according to a report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund.
The report, launched Wednesday, found that illicit trade in wildlife is worth at least $19 billion a year with organized criminals viewing it as high profit and low risk because governments don't give it a high enough priority and haven't implemented an effective response.
Germany's U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig, who hosted the launch, said strong demand and high prices for rhino horn and elephant ivory in particular have spurred poaching, which is an organized crime.
"2011 was the highest year on record for elephant poaching: ivory estimated to weigh more than 23 metric tons - a figure that represents 2,500 elephants - was confiscated in 2011," Wittig said. "And the illegal poaching of rhinos surged to a record high in 2011, with a final death toll of 448 rhinos in southern Africa alone."
He said this trend continued in 2012, with ivory prices up to $1,000 a pound and rhino horns up to approximately $30,000 per pound.
Wittig stressed that it isn't only rhinos and elephants that are at risk.
"There may be as few as 3,200 wild tigers left in the world - and the increase in poaching makes extinction of tiger species a very real threat," he said.
According to the report, although illicit wildlife trafficking has a well-documented link to other forms of illegal trafficking, the financing of rebel groups, corruption and money laundering, "the issue is primarily seen as an environmental issue, which puts it low on governments' agendas."
They also called for governments to be held accountable for enforcing regulations on wildlife, including imposing sanctions where necessary, and a campaign to reduce demand for endangered species.
The World Wildlife Fund, known as WWF, and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, called on governments to recognize the threat to their sovereignty posed by illegal wildlife trafficking and treat the crime "equally and in coordination with efforts to halt other forms of illegal trafficking, corruption and money laundering."
"Wildlife crime has escalated alarmingly in the past decade," said Jim Leape, director general of WWF International. "It is driven by global crime syndicates, and so we need a concentrated global response."
He said communities, often the world's poorest, lose the most from the illicit trade because families that depend on natural resources are losing their livelihoods while criminal gangs and corrupt officials rake in profits.
The report was produced for WWF by Dalberg Global Development Advisors, a strategic consulting firm that says it "works to raise living standards in developing countries and address global issues such as climate change."