Push to lift hunting ban on endangered species

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The hard-won protection for the world's largest animals will be placed in serious danger at an international meeting being held next week.

The hard-won protection for the world's largest animals will be placed in serious danger at an international meeting being held next week.

The two agreements that halted whales' and elephants'slide to extinction through unchecked hunting - the 1986 whaling moratorium and the 1990 ban on the ivory trade - may both by undermined at the conference in Nairobi, Kenya, of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) which opens a week today. The meeting could mark a drastic reversal of the gradual but steady progress made in international conservation since the Sixties.

The agenda is brutally simple. Two countries, Japan and Norway, want to reopen the international trade in whale meat; four African countries, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, want to reopen the international trade in elephant ivory and hides. Commerce in both is outlawed around the world.

African elephants and many whale species were on the way to extinction when their hunting was stopped. But the Japanese and Norwegians now argue that the whale species they wish to trade in, minke whales and eastern Pacific gray whales, have healthy stocks and are in no way threatened with extinction. The African nations make the same point about the elephant populations of their particular countries.

Conservationists counter that in both cases renewed trading in healthy populations of the animals, even on an ostensibly limited scale, will open the floodgates to a massive expansion of hunting, and not only legal hunting: pirate whaling and elephant poaching will flourish again, they say, once there is a legal market into which the produce can be sold.

Britain is against both moves and Elliot Morley, the Agriculture minister who has responsibility for whaling, hopes to attend the conference.

The whaling issue is the more immediately crucial. The moratorium was imposed by the body that regulates commercial whaling, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and once it was brought in, Cites automatically outlawed all trade in the animals.

Neither the Japanese nor the Norwegians have ever accepted the ban. The Japanese have continued to hunt under a loophole that permits whaling for research purposes, although all the meat is sold for human consumption, while the Norwegians registered a formal objection at the time and have continued commercial whaling. Yet the number of animals they kill is limited by the fact that whale meat cannot be legally traded internationally; the Norwegians cannot sell to the Japanese, or vice versa.

Every year, the two countries attempt to have the bans lifted but are consistently outvoted at the conference of the IWC, which has fewer than 50 members, most of them conservation minded. Three years ago they switched their attention to Cites, whose 150 member countries includes many which are less committed to conservation.

The tactic nearly paid off: in the 1997 Cites meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, Japan and Norway succeeded in getting a simple majority for reopening trade in whale meat, but not the two-thirds majority necessary for the move to go through.

Since then they have conducted an extensive lobbying campaign to raise the vote. Green groups allege that Norway is spending large sums on public relations and that Japan is actually offering aid packages to developing states in return for their votes. Greenpeace's whaling campaigner, Richard Page, said: "People should wake up to the fact that Norway and Japan could win this vote and turn the clock back."

Mr Morley said: "Let's be clear about what's at stake here. If Japan and Norway are successful ... then it blows the moratorium wide open and reintroduces commercial whaling. If you start trading minke whales, people will sell whale meat from other species. We know it's been going on. I think Japan and Norway think [they can] use Cites to undermine the moratorium, and we have to make sure it doesn't happen."

The position with regard to African elephants is remarkably similar, with conservationists fearing that reopening the trade with the four countries concerned, which admittedly have healthy, well-managed elephant stocks, would simply pave the way for the Eighties poaching slaughter to begin again all across the continent.

Three years ago in Harare, the first breach was made in the ivory ban when Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe sought and won approval for the sale to Japan of large amounts of ivory from their legally held government stocks. This was meant to be a strictly one-off measure, subject to exacting conditions about new monitoring, enforcement and control measures on the illegal killing of elephants.

Now the three states, joined by South Africa, want to make it a permanent arrangement.

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