Britain will vote against the proposed sale of stockpiled ivory from Tanzania and Zambia, which conservationists fear would lead to further slaughter of African elephants, the Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said last night.
After a day in which opposition spokesmen called for an explicit statement on Britain's position, Mr Benn made it unequivocally clear that the UK would oppose the proposed sale, which will be voted on at the next meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Qatar in March. Should it go ahead, the Tanzania-Zambia sale, detailed in the The Independent yesterday, will be the third such "one-off" ivory auction to have taken place since the international ban on the trade was brought in 20 years ago this month to halt the catastrophic plunge in African elephant populations at the hands of ivory poachers.
Although the ban was at first successful in halting the decline, the two sales of ivory from four southern African countries – the first in 1997, the second in 2008 – are considered by conservationists to have considerably weakened the ban by reviving a legal ivory market into which illegal, poached tusks can be laundered.
The second sale of ivory, from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, is believed to have triggered a considerable revival of the illegal trade with a consequent upsurge in poaching over the past year. In several West African countries, such as Senegal, elephant populations are on the verge of extinction.
To the dismay of conservationists, Britain did not oppose the two "one-off" ivory sales, and environmental campaigners feared that Britain would go along with the third.
But last night Mr Benn took a clear stance against the sale, saying: "At the CITES meeting in March, the UK will vote against the proposals from Tanzania and Zambia to sell ivory stocks, and we would urge other countries to vote against such a sale."
However, he appeared to leave the door open for possible future auctions when he added: "In 2008, the members of the CITES agreed to a single, one-off sale of legal, stockpiled ivory from countries with stable elephant populations. The sale was intended to reduce demand for illegal poached ivory.
"The UK will not consider other sales of ivory until the effects of last-year's sale have been fully analysed." Environmental campaigners fear this means Britain will not oppose a second request at the meeting from Tanzania and Zambia that their elephant stocks be "downlisted" from the CITES's Appendix One to Appendix Two, meaning that eventually some trade in elephant products such as ivory can be resumed.
Yesterday, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats called on ministers to clarify the Government's opposition to the proposed sale, which is also opposed by a number of African countries, led by Kenya and Mali, who have sent representatives to Brussels this week to lobby the European Union to oppose it.
At a press conference in the Belgian capital yesterday, the Kenyan minister for forestry and wildlife, Dr Noah Wekesa, said: "As elephant poaching reaches heights not seen for decades and the volume of illegal ivory seized soars, the African Elephant Coalition, representing the majority of African elephant range states, is appealing to the European Union to take urgent and immediate action to prevent the further slaughter of elephants across much of Africa."