'WITH GREAT sadness I find I must write to tell you that the plight of Africa's wild elephants is far more desperate than I could have ever imagined.' So began an 'urgent memorandum' from the African Wildlife Foundation, a non-profit-making conservation organisation, to its members and potential donors on 10 February 1988. It was designed to shock and to raise money. It succeeded in doing both.

'In Kenya, there were 165,000 elephants just 15 years ago,' the memorandum said. 'Today only 20,000 remain.' Of the 30,000 elephants that had roamed Tsavo National Park in Kenya in the Seventies, 'the remaining 5,000 will be dead in 17 months'. In Tanzania, half the 50,000 elephants in the Selous Reserve had been killed in the previous eight years. In Uganda, 90 per cent of 'these beautiful animals' had been 'wiped out'. This slaughter was caused by the 'insatiable greed of the ivory hunters'. The memorandum concluded by declaring 1988 the 'Year of the Elephant'.

Three months later the organisation held a Washington news conference at the National Zoo, in the yard of the zoo's African elephant, Nancy. Its vice-president, Diana McMeekin, issued an appeal to American consumers: 'Don't buy ivory.'

The mailing and news conference were the beginning of one of the most intense conservation campaigns ever. The crusade to ban ivory was marked by hyperbole and gruesome pictures of mutilated elephants and by public emotion and politics. It was a campaign in which conservation organisations paid homage to fund raising and membership. Groups that endorsed a ban found that there was big money in elephants and, conversely, that failing to join the crusade might cost them members.

In the spring of 1988, it would have been hard to find a scientist or conservationist with experience in Africa who supported a total ban as the solution to elephant poaching. 'Outright bans would not solve the problem,' one of Africa's pre-eminent conservationists, David Western, said. Western, who has a doctorate in ecology and was director from 1986 to 1990 of Wildlife Conservation International, the field research arm of the New York Zoological Society, then went even further. A ban, he said, 'would exaggerate the problems with wildlife in Africa, because African nations use the revenue from ivory to help finance their conservation programmes'.

Even the most respected elephant researchers were not calling for a total ban. Many thought a ban, even a moratorium for 5 to 10 years, would be far from a solution to the problem. It might even 'endanger elephants', Iain Douglas-Hamilton said in November 1988 at a meeting of representatives of African wildlife departments and Western conservationists. The African governments unanimously rejected the idea of a ban - they didn't even like the foundation's call for a consumer boycott - and Douglas-Hamilton's views were influential. He was 'Mr Elephant', a dashing Scotsman who had engaged in elephant research since the Sixties. In support of his argument, Douglas-Hamilton noted that in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, elephant populations were 'well managed and well protected' and that those countries made money from the sale of ivory.

In spite of these reservations, in October 1989 at Lausanne, by a vote of more than two-thirds of the governments that are signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), the elephant was declared an endangered species. As a result, ivory trading became illegal.

The African Wildlife Foundation, which had overcome its professed concerns about appearing arrogant, had lobbied hard for the complete ban. But it was not alone in doing a conservation flip-flop. By the time of the Cites vote, it was hard to find a conservationist - organisation or individual - who opposed a ban: Douglas-Hamilton was on board, as was David Western - though he sought a compromise that would have allowed Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where poaching was not a serious problem, to trade in ivory after a moratorium of a couple of years.

What explains the dramatic shift? The short answer: public emotion and money.

At the beginning of 1989, the African Wildlife Foundation still believed that a voluntary boycott was the only appropriate approach. But 1989 was the year of the environment. Time magazine's 'Man of the Year' was the 'Endangered Earth'. There were fears about global warming, the greenhouse effect and a hole in the ozone layer. There were appeals to save Brazil's rainforests, outrage at an oil spill off the coast of Alaska and concern over hazardous wastes. But no issue reached the public's heart and pocket-book as deeply as the African elephant. And as Western passions rose, so did the sums of money available to organisations that pandered to them.

When the foundation began its elephant campaign in 1988, it was a small organisation with 23,600 members, not very well known outside a small circle of African wildlife aficionados; its budget was dollars 1.8m. By the end of 1989, it had 43,000 members, its donations had increased from dollars 1.5m to dollars 2.5m and it was established as a major force in the African conservation game.

The International Wildlife Coalition was the next to get into what was becoming a large-scale campaign attracting huge donations, with an advertisement in the New York Times headlined 'African Chainsaw Massacre'. The ad claimed the elephant would be extinct by 1997, and went on: 'The last elephant to die will likely be a baby . . . The last thing this baby will see before it dies will be its mother being killed and mutilated with a chainsaw.'

In Britain the World Wide Fund for Nature, part of the international group known as WWF, sent out a four-page letter on behalf of the elephant in late 1988. Bland in comparison with the hyperbole being employed by the African Wildlife Foundation and other United States organisations, it used the word 'slaughter' only once while noting the alarming decline of elephants in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. The mailing went to 50,000 people and raised pounds 300,000. In July 1989 the fund sent out another elephant appeal. An additional pounds 200,000 came in. That was twice as much as people sent in response to pleas for sea turtles and gorillas.

The British group had initially opposed the ban. But elephant poaching was the stuff of British tabloids, and the Daily Mail ran tear-jerking stories about orphaned baby elephants and printed coupons for readers to send to the organisation, urging it to call for a ban on ivory imports. No fewer than 60,000 readers inundated the group with letters and telephone calls - and pounds 7,000 in donations, an amount that surprised WWF UK, since it had not appealed for money. At last, the group capitulated and voted to support a ban.

Nowhere was the argument over conservation policy - and its conflict with the need to raise funds - more bitterly joined than at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, also part of the international WWF. Over a period of more than a year, in what seemed to be never-ending 'blood and guts' meetings, the American group debated the ivory ban.

Those individuals whose job it was to bring in money and members argued that the organisation had to support a ban or lose members. The conservationists opposed it. They argued that a ban was bad conservation and bad for Africans, especially southern Africans. They asked how the World Wildlife Fund could endorse a ban and at the same time continue to support the doctrine of sustainable utilisation. This doctrine, which had been incorporated into the landmark World Conservation Strategy of 1980, says in essence that the wise and rational use of resources is permissible. They argued that it would be inconsistent and hypocritical for the fund, which had been one of the doctrine's sponsors, to endorse a ban on ivory when it was not even clear that the species was endangered.

Though 'conservation' has become a generic term embracing all efforts to save the environment and resources, initially it meant the careful and planned use of resources. Opposing the 'conservationists' were the 'preservationists', who argued on aesthetic and ethical grounds that nature should be left undisturbed by man.

Most conservationists are probably preservationists at heart: the principle of sustainable utilisation was adopted not out of any philosophical commitment but out of the reality of Third World poverty. As the World Conservation Strategy puts it: 'Hundreds of millions of rural people in developing countries, including 500 million malnourished and 800 million destitute, are compelled to destroy the resources necessary to free them from starvation and poverty.' The drafters of the World Conservation Strategy recognised that the poor of the world were going to use the resources around them to survive, notwithstanding philosophical and ethical appeals by wealthy Westerners. They should therefore be encouraged to use them in a sustainable way.

The most valuable resource in Kenya and many African countries is wildlife. One obvious way to 'utilise' wildlife, to make money from it, is through tourism. But more directly profitable forms of sustainable utilisation include killing crocodiles, leopards and zebras for their skins; impalas, elands and wildebeests for their meat, and lions and buffaloes for hunting trophies. Sustainable utilisation also permits the killing of elephants for their ivory. In many rural districts of Africa, the sale of ivory from just 1 or 2 per cent of the elephant population could generate substantial revenues, and in many cases would take the districts off the international dole. And allowing rural people to make money from elephants gives them a powerful incentive to protect the species.

In spite of its long commitment to the principle of sustainable utilisation, however, the World Wildlife Fund in Washington was concerned that the concept was 'not understood by the vast majority' of its members. As Russell Train, the group's chairman, told me in 1991: 'We're trying to bring our members along on utilisation, but our development people, the fund-raisers, are very nervous because there is no question that the great majority of our membership are animal lovers and have difficulty making the evolution to a more sophisticated understanding of conservation.'

It is indeed difficult to explain sustainable utilisation in catchy slogans such as 'Only elephants should wear ivory' and 'Ban the bloody ivory trade' - with 'bloody' in dripping red. A slogan like 'Buy ivory, save elephants' might not bring in major contributions but it would be honest. By giving elephants an economic value, Africans would not only have an incentive to protect them but money with which to do it.

In the end, the fund-raisers at WWF prevailed over the conservationists, and on 1 June 1989 the American branch announced that it 'strongly endorsed' the proposal to ban the trade. The international branch reluctantly joined in. 'We caved,' Robert SanGeorge, the international spokesman, says simply. (A few days later, President George Bush announced a unilateral ban on the importation of ivory.)

An elephant spends 16 hours a day eating, and an average adult bull weighing six tons consumes 300lb of trees and grass and 50 gallons of water every day. A herd of elephants goes through an area like a slow tornado, snapping off branches and uprooting trees, leaving devastation behind. The destruction of woodlands by the elephants has meant the destruction of the habitat for other species.

The most egregious omission from arguments made by advocates of a ban was recognition of the situation in other parts of Africa, particularly southern Africa. What was happening in east Africa - particularly Kenya and Tanzania, where poaching was out of control - was not representative of all of Africa.

In Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa the elephant, far from being endangered, has been increasing in numbers. World attention focused on Kenya, but the greatest concentration of elephants in east or southern Africa today is in Botswana - around 56,000, double the number of elephants that existed there a decade ago. Zimbabwe's elephant population, according to the government, has increased from 30,000 in 1979 to 52,000 today - more than double that of Kenya, although Zimbabwe is considerably smaller in area. In South Africa the elephant population has remained stable and poaching has been negligible.

It is true that Kenya's elephant population has declined sharply to about 20,000. But given the country's growing human population and its need for land on which to grow food, it cannot tolerate any more elephants. Richard Leakey, head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, has said their number will have to be kept between 16,000 and 18,000.

Everyone agrees that the number of elephants must be reduced, or at least controlled. Leakey is hoping that some method of birth control for elephants will be developed. But if that does not happen, he is prepared to take a more radical step. 'If we cannot control the numbers by any other method, we will have to cull,' he told me last August. That would be far more controversial than selling ivory, because it involves killing entire families of elephants.

The ivory-ban advocates neglected to mention these facts, and they were not generally known to the public during the crusade.

Paul Schindler, president of the African Wildlife Foundation, wrote to officials from WWF who were criticising the 'urgent memorandum' as being emotional and misleading. 'None of us may like the hyperbole that has insinuated itself into the direct-mail business, but Americans are all too familiar with it. A random sampling of US direct-mail appeals will inform you that the last rhinos alive now are headed toward extinction, or that your children's children will have to learn about whales, pandas, etc, from books, because none will exist unless you send in some dollars.'

In essence, Schindler was saying that everyone used hyperbole to raise money. It was his only defence, and it revealed much about the conservation game, in which raising money often seems to be more important than the truth or good conservation.

Raymond Bonner is the author of 'At The Hand Of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa's Wildlife', to be published by Simon & Schuster on 24 June at pounds 16.99.

(Photographs omitted)