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The last trump of the elephant?

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MY cabin stood beside a water pool, and each morning I awoke to the sound of an elephant family snorting and spraying and splashing. During my several-week stay, Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park was fairly replete with elephants: some on the move, others standing on their hind legs feeding on high acacia branches, others camouflaged by tree shadows and looking like so many boulders. One night a young bull faced off with our Land Rover in the middle of the road. We stopped and turned off the engine and lights. The huge black specter walked toward us, knocking his tusks against the vehicle as he glided the tip of his snout over the hood and windshield. The sound of his heavy, hollow breathing filled the air. Suddenly, he turned and pounded down the road in front of us.

That was in 1983. On a return trip to Manyara in March, I expected similar close encounters. There were none. In fact, I saw but a handful of elephants, always in the distance. The population had dropped from 485 to 181 - just in the last two years.

The African elephant may become a memory before this century closes.

Studies show devastation on the order of 50 percent throughout the continent in only 10 years, as the ivory trade thrives in the shadow of corruption and upheaval. But a plan is taking shape that would do for the elephant what was done for the whale.

Today marks the start of the ``Year of the Elephant,'' a campaign to educate Americans (who purchase 30 percent of the world's carved ivory) about the elephant's plight.

``At least 80 percent of ivory on the market today comes from poached elephants - even if it comes with all the correct papers certifying it as legal,'' says researcher Cynthia Moss, author of a captivating new book, ``Elephant Memories.'' Ms. Moss, who spent the last 20 years in East Africa studying elephant behavior, is a senior research adviser to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), and was on hand at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., yesterday to help launch the foundation's Year of the Elephant project.

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