JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Large seizures of elephant tusks make this year the worst on record since ivory sales were banned in 1989, with recent estimates suggesting as many as 3,000 elephants were killed by poachers, experts said Thursday.

"2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants," said Tom Milliken, elephant and rhino expert for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

In one case this month, Malaysian authorities seized hundreds of African elephant tusks worth $1.3 million that were being shipped to Cambodia. The ivory was hidden in containers of Kenyan handicrafts.

"In 23 years of compiling ivory-seizure data ... this is the worst year ever for large ivory seizures," Milliken said.

Most cases involve ivory being smuggled from Africa into Asia, where growing wealth has fed the desire for ivory ornaments and for rhino horn, which is used in traditional medicine, though scientists have proved it has no medicinal value.

TRAFFIC said Asian crime syndicates were increasingly involved in poaching and the illegal ivory trade across Africa. The trend coincides with growing Asian investment on the continent.

Some of the seized tusks came from old stockpiles, the elephants having been killed years ago. But the International Fund for Elephant Welfare said recent estimates suggested more than 3,000 elephants had been killed for their ivory in the last year.

"Reports from Central Africa are particularly alarming and suggest that if current levels of poaching are sustained, some countries, such as Chad, could potentially lose their elephant populations in the very near future," said Jason Bell, director of the elephant program for the fund, based in Yarmouth Port, Mass.