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359 elephant tusks found smuggled in ship containers

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Some of the seized elephant tusks are displayed Wednesday at a customs warehouse in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Three shipping containers found in Sri Lanka stuffed with 359 elephant tusks came from Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service reported Thursday.

Trading in tusks is illegal, and Sri Lanka seized the cargo on Tuesday after it was detected by scans.

The containers -- which had been declared as only containing plastic waste and teak logs -- were destined for Dubai, India and Guatemala.

A fourth container was detained before it left the country, Kenya's wildlife service said in a statement.

Poaching for elephant ivory and rhino horns has risen dramatically across Africa due to demand from Asia, where ivory is used for ornaments and horns used in traditional medicine.

The news came as the U.S. Senate held a hearing on the problem.

Last year was "the worst" in 23 years of collecting data on ivory seizures, the wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC said in its report for 2011, with most large seizures coming from ports in Kenya or Tanzania.

The rise, said TRAFFIC's Tom Milliken, reflects "both a rising demand in Asia and the increasing sophistication of the criminal gangs behind the trafficking. Most illegal shipments of African elephant ivory end up in either China or Thailand."

Just days after Rock Center aired Harry Smith's report, "The Last Stand," on the growing epidemic of illegal rhino poaching in South Africa, three of the rhinos featured in the report were attacked by poachers. Rock Center's Harry Smith reports.

Once in Asia, the documentation for illegal shipments is often changed to make it look like a local re-export, helping to hide its true origin, TRAFFIC stated.

"That’s an indication of the level of sophistication enforcement officers are up against in trying to outwit the criminal masterminds behind this insidious trade," said Milliken. "As most large-scale ivory seizures fail to result in any arrests, I fear the criminals are winning."

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On Wednesday, two suspected poachers were shot dead and 32 were arrested, the Kenya Wildlife Service reported, adding that the suspects had shot and wounded an elephant.

The service also listed four other suspected poaching incidents in the last two weeks.

"Tomorrow will be simply too late," Prince William warns as Africa's magnificent wild animals are mercilessly and illegally poached at a rate not seen for decades.

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