Trade in ivory can start again as ban on tusk exports is lifted

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A legal, international trade in elephant ivory can start again, after nations voted yesterday to relax a seven-year total ban on tusk exports.

In just under two years, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia can start selling 59 tonnes of ivory from their stockpiles to Japan, provided both exporters and importers prove they have the means to monitor and control this "closed loop" trade.

Some pressure groups, including the RSPCA, condem- ned the vote at the CITES treaty conference on trade in endangered species in Harare, Zimbabwe. They said it was bound to lead to an increase in poaching, which led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of African elephants in the last two decades.

But the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the world's leading wildlife conservation group, welcomed the fact that there were stringent conditions to be fulfilled before trade restarted. It also announced a grant of pounds 43,500 to the three would-be exporters, to help them set up controls and monitoring systems.

``It's vital to make sure all the safeguards are in place. If they are, this decision could work in favour of wildlife conservation,'' said a WWF spokeswoman.

The 76 in favour, 21 against vote, in which Britain and the rest of the European Union abstained, is a huge breakthrough for those nations and businesses in favour of exploiting wildlife as if it were any other natural resource. They say the important issue is that it should be done sustainably. Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana argued that they had healthy and growing elephant populations which needed to be kept in check. They want to spend the money from selling ivory from elephants which were culled or died of natural causes on wildlife conservation, and to benefit communities living in elephant areas.

But an expert panel set up in advance of the CITES treaty meeting found shortcomings in the way the three kept tabs on its ivory stockpile and stopped illegal smuggling. The panel also felt Japan could not guarantee that its ivory imports were received by licensed traders and ivory workers.

Intitial proposals by the three countries to allow them to sell ivory to Japan were rejected in Harare earlier this week. But a working group was set up which proposed further restrictions.

No trade would be allowed if the CITES executive committee was not satisfied with the control and monitoring measures drawn up by the four countries. And it would also be banned again if poaching flared up once more. It was this proposal which was voted for, in a secret ballot, with Zimbabwean officials leading African delegates in singing and dancing.

Dr Arthur Lindley, the RSPCA's head of wildlife who was at the treaty meeting, said: ``I think poachers will see this as a green light. They're not going to read through a four-page CITES resolution to learn about restrictions and conditions.''

The ivory decision came a day after delegates imposed controls on trade in the over-fished, endangered sturgeon and its caviar. But they voted to reject a South African proposal to re-open a legal international trade in rhinoceros products, including horn.