(CBS News) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called on world leaders to stop the epic slaughter of African elephants, a wildlife crisis that could lead to the extinction of the Sub-Saharan species.
CBS News went to Kenya last week, where every year 25,000 elephants are being killed by poachers. Their tusks are sold for thousands of dollars, often to wealthy Chinese customers who prize ornate ivory carvings.
"Our goal is to inform more people about this global conservation crisis," Clinton said in a video address. "Attacks on elephants and rhinos are multiplying at an alarming rate."
The State Department also declared Tuesday "Wildlife Conservation Day." Clinton instructed U.S. diplomats all over the world to raise awareness about the trafficking of wild animals.
African gangs, some with links to organized crime, hunt the animals in order to make a fortune from selling tusks to merchants.
"It's the worst that it's been in the last 30 years," Ian Craig, a conservationist, told CBS News correspondent M. Sanjayan last week (watch full interview to the left). "It's a steady deterioration, and it's getting worse."
Although illegal, the practice has a heavy financial incentive. Craig says a gunman who poaches an elephant with tusks weighing 10 kilograms would receive about $2,500 -- more than five times what an average Kenyan worker earns in a month.
And the trade extends across Africa, from Tanzania and Kenya north to Cairo, Egypt. CBS News correspondent Holly Williams found it wasn't difficult to buy ivory in the Egyptian capital, where she went undercover in a busy market.
Although selling ivory is against the law, a shop owner casually showed Williams and her crew into a back room where he showed six tusks -- two were offered for just under $2,000. Business is booming, he said, and his best customers are Chinese.
The shop owner, Essam, even showed a special trick for smuggling ivory: Spray painting the tusks to look like wood or metal, which is easily removed later with nail polish remover. Several other traders were spotted operating openly in the same market.
The Egyptian government makes periodic attempts to confiscate the illegal tusks, but the ivory there is just a sliver of a widespread operation. Chinese authorities have also made efforts to seize trafficked ivory, but refused to respond to questions by CBS News -- including about allegation that government officials are involved in smuggling.
Tom Milliken, who tracks the illegal wildlife trade in Africa, told Williams he's fighting a losing battle with Chinese criminal gangs.
"There's just so many potential consumers, there's just so many potential smugglers, there's so much wealth that can be employed to do the wrong thing and not the right thing," Milliken said.
Some conservationists, rangers and government veterinarians have resorted to a controversial method to help protect elephants. Craig, who co-founded the wildlife conservationist group Northern Rangelands Trust, told Sanjayan they cut off parts of an elephants tusks to make them less of a target.
Craig said he also hopes the allure of tourism will help protect the Kenyan wildlife.
"They're seeing better security for themselves, money being generated from tourism going into education, water protects," Craig said. "Where these benefits are clean and clear to communities, it's working."
© 2012 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.