A global conference governing wildlife trade has voted against strengthening the ban on ivory sales. The result exposes divisions among African countries and experts over elephant conservation.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has rejected a proposal to include all African elephants in its highest category of protection, which would have banned trade in those species facing extinction.
The meeting in Johannesburg, which ends Wednesday, is listening to 62 proposals to tighten or loosen trade restrictions on around 500 species. Illegal trade in wildlife is valued at around $20 billion (18 billion euros) a year, according to CITES, and its treaty, signed by 182 countries and the European Union, protects about 5,600 animal and 30,000 plant species from overexploitation through commercial trade.
A coalition of 29 African countries - led by Kenya and Benin - had pressed for African elephants to be put in the CITES Appendix I category. South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe rejected the proposal, arguing that they should remain excluded from Appendix I as they have stable or growing elephant populations.
"We are happy that we have successfully blocked the proposal by Kenya and coalition countries," Zimbabwe Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri told the French news agency AFP. "It was going to hurt Zimbabwe which has performed so well in growing its own elephant population and ensuring that the proceeds ... of any trade was going to be plowed into the rural people."
Tragedy or necessity?
"This is a tragedy for elephants," Kelvin Alie, program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told AFP. "At a time when we are seeing such a dramatic increase in the slaughter of elephants for ivory, now was the time for the global community to step up and say 'no more'."
Others at the conference, however, said the proposal would have fueled the illegal market and led to some countries such as Namibia withdrawing from the CITES treaty.
"The proposal to uplist four southern African populations to Appendix I could well have opened a back door to legal international trade," said Ginette Hemley, head of the conservation group WWF delegation. "African elephants are in steep decline across much of the continent due to poaching for their ivory, and opening up any legal trade in ivory would have complicated efforts to conserve them."
A recent survey showed a 30-percent decline in the Savannah elephant population over seven years, and new data released by wildlife monitor TRAFFIC showed a "rising trend in large raw ivory shipments" last year.
Africa's elephant population dropped by 111,000 to 415,000 individuals since poaching surged in 2006, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Earlier CITES had voted against proposals by Namibia and Zimbabwe to be allowed to sell off their stockpiles accrued from natural deaths and poaching seizures to fund projects in communities living close to elephants.
International trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, but legal domestic markets have continued in some countries, and CITES has allowed sales of African ivory stockpiles to Japan and China - in 1999 and 2008.
Rhino horn trade
CITES delegates also defeated a proposal from Swaziland to legalize rhino horn trade.
Some campaigners say that providing a legal supply of farmed rhino horn is the only way to end a sudden boom in poaching of the endangered animal as demand soars in Vietnam and China.
Delegates have already voted to ban all international trade in African grey parrots, one of the world's most trafficked birds, and in the shy, scale-covered pangolin.
jbh/cmk (AFP, dpa)