China was given permission to become a licensed buyer of ivory yesterday, provoking widespread condemnation from environmentalists and politicians, who said the move was a grave threat to the future of wild elephants in Africa and Asia.
The British Government came in for fierce criticism after voting – as forecast by The Independent – for China at a UN meeting in Geneva, despite opposition from several African countries.
The Green MEP Caroline Lucas called the vote "a dark and irrevocable stain on the UK's wildlife conservation record overseas".
The vote, at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), gives China the right to buy ivory auctioned by four southern African countries, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Environmentalists claim that the entry of China into the market will provide a substantial opportunity for the laundering of illegal ivory, and provide the impetus for further poaching across Africa, where more than 20,000 elephants are illegally killed every year.
China is the centre of the world's illegal ivory trade, although the government is cracking down on it.
The vote on its approved buyer status was won by nine votes to two, with two abstentions. Britain voted in favour with Bulgaria, on behalf of the European Union. Australia and New Zealand voted against, and several African countries spoke out passionately against the move, including Kenya, Mali and Ghana.
However, it was defended robustly last night by Britain's minister for Wildlife, Joan Ruddock, who took ultimate responsibility for the UK position. Ms Ruddock said that China had now met the conditions laid down to allow countries to take part in the auction.
"In 2002 an international agreement was reached to allow African states to undertake a one-off sale of their legally held ivory stocks," she said. "Criteria were established for trading partners. The EU today accepted that China had met the criteria. Any other form of ivory sales remains illegal under international law.
"China has satisfied the Cites Standing Committee that it has established robust controls to manage the legally stockpiled ivory to ensure it is not exported from and is effectively monitored within China. This one-off sale is only from elephants that have not died as a result of poaching. China has shown itself willing to crack down on illegal ivory trading and we expect them to continue to do so."
Many of Ms Ruddock's parliamentary colleagues expressed anger and dismay at Britain's vote. Eliot Morley, one of Ms Ruddock's predecessors as Wildlife minister, said: "This strikes me as a very bad move. It does open the prospect of a return to the large-scale illegal ivory trade."
Howard Stoate, MP for Dartford and parliamentary private secretary to Estelle Morris when she was Culture minister, said: "It is outrageous. There is no justification for it whatever. I think it is a very retrograde step."
Ian Gibson, former Labour chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, said: "Every animal lover in the country will abhor this decision. I just wonder what excuse Gordon Brown will give."
MPs were threatening to table a protest motion against the Government for supporting China in the vote. More than 150 MPs of all parties signed a cross-party motion calling for the Government not to vote for China to be given a licence to trade in ivory.
Environmentalists were even more critical. Allan Thornton of the Environmental Investigation Agency, which provided much of the evidence for the original ban in 1989, said: "This is a sad day for those who love wildlife and who believe that human society has an ethical responsibility to conserve species that are being destroyed by human activities."
Robbie Marsland, UK director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: "It is appalling... The UK should have shown leadership in the EU to protect elephants from the slaughter at the hands of poachers that will inevitably result from this decision."