Conservationists deplored a decision yesterday to allow Namibia, South Africa and Botswana to sell off up to 30 tonnes of their legally held ivory stockpiles.
The decision taken by delegates to the UN convention on international trade in endangered species (Cites) in Santiago, Chile, falls short of the complete opening up of the controversial trade which southern African states have wanted for many years, but was widely interpreted as the beginning of the end of the 13-year ban on all ivory trading.
As the three countries celebrated a potential windfall of up to £13m, many conservationists said the decision would send a message to poachers that full ivory trading had resumed.
This, they said, could mark a return to the level of slaughter that saw African elephant numbers halve from 1.2 million to 600,000 in just over a decade before all trade was stopped in 1989.
"You could now have an uncontrollable situation. This could trigger a fashion
for ivory goods in China which could be devastating to African elephants," said
Iain Douglas Hamilton of Save
Michael Wamithi, of the International
Fund for Animal Welfare, said: "The result is a terrible loss for elephants
in Africa and Asia, and for the many countries that will now have to battle to
protect their elephants from the certain increase in illegal poaching."
Susan Lieberman, of WWF International,
said: "This is not a decision to open the trade but it could lead to it in a few
years' time. We are not sure exactly what the immediate effect of selling the
stocks will be but there are real risks."
However, non-governmental groups in several African countries welcomed the decision.
"The Cites vote is a step in the right direction. Kenyans are currently barred from using their natural resource," said James Shikwati of the Sustainable Development Network in Nairobi, which represents 30 groups in India, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.
"African people should be allowed to escape their poverty by making use of their resources - even elephants - without the interference of elitist eco-imperialism by NGOs who are only interested in protecting animals, and not human beings," he said, predicting that trade would increase elephant conservation.
The narrow vote to allow the sale of the ivory stocks followed the abstention
of the EU and a controversial and unexpected US move to broker a compromise deal
with Botswana which helped to win the vote. This, said observers, turned the debate
on the protection of elephants into one about world trade. Critics accused the
US of being swayed by its rightwing domestic hunting lobby.
Sales of the stockpiles could start within 18 months but will not be formally allowed until strict scientific monitoring of all African and Indian elephant herds is complete and there has been a crackdown on the illegal ivory trade to countries such as China. Much of the ivory that can now be sold will come from elephants that have died naturally.
The decisions must be formally ratified later this week, but are expected to be passed unless strong lobbying persuades the EU to change its vote.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002