PARIS - In a victory claimed by conservationists seeking to shield Africa's elephants from poachers, the main international agency protecting endangered species has resolved to uphold a 21-year-old ban on the international trade in ivory, rejecting efforts by Tanzania and Zambia to dilute the prohibition.
With elephant poaching on the rise - despite increased populations of the animal in some countries - the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), turned down a Tanzanian proposal to permit a one-time sale of about 90 tons of its ivory stocks.
Hours later, Zambia withdrew a similar request for a one-time sale of 21 tons of tusks, but it sought a modest reduction in the international protection of its elephant population to permit eventual future trade. Despite support from the United States, that proposal, too, was defeated.
The votes represented a turnabout in the fortunes of conservationists at a Cites meeting in Doha, Qatar, where delegates last week defeated American-supported plans to ban international trade in blue fin tuna and to protect polar bears.
The moves by Zambia and Tanzania touched the heart of a long-running and often passionate debate about the conservation of elephant herds. Both countries insisted that the main threat to the animals - 27000 in Zambia and 137000 in Tanzania, by official counts - was not the international trade in ivory, often for customers in Asia, but the conflict between elephants and the often impoverished humans in the bush lands and savannas of eastern and central Africa.
The international trade prohibition was imposed in 1989 and has been relaxed only sparingly since then to permit three one-time sales. Each sale has touched off new debates about whether exemptions to the ban mainly benefit organised crime syndicates by reopening trade connections, allowing gangsters to peddle poached ivory in addition to the official sales of documented stocks held by governments. After the last one-time sale was completed in 2008, Cites agreed to a nine-year moratorium.
In a telephone interview from Doha after the voting on Monday, the International Fund for Animal Welfare's Jason Bell-Leask said the outcome of the voting on Monday was "a victory for elephants" and a "huge relief" for conservationists.