Kenya fights to keep ivory ban that saved herds

Not only elephants die in the ivory wars. Peter Ndiritu, a Kenyan wildlife ranger, saw a colleague shot dead last July by poachers armed with AK-47 assault rifles. "The bandits thought they were surrounded. He died on the spot," said Mr Ndiritu. Another colleague of his was in hospital last week after being charged at by abuffalo.

Kenyans are deadly serious about protecting their wildlife. They are fiercely resisting plans to undo the ivory ban that saved their elephants from decimation just over a decade ago. The country's African neighbours are proposing, at the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (Cites) meeting that opens in Nairobi today, to sell their lucrative ivory stockpiles.

The two-week conference, attended by 150 countries, will debate the hunting of rare wildlife, from the African elephant and the minke whale to the Malagasy poison frog. All are threatened in some way by international trade.

Cites banned the ivory trade in 1989 but eight years later permitted three African countries - Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana - to sell 60 tons to Japan. This year the same countries want to open the market up further and will be joined by South Africa, which wants to sell 30 tons of ivory worth $2.7m (£1.7m). They argue that the controlled sale of legal ivory, from elephants that die naturally or through necessary culling, brings in valuable revenue for wildlife research and conservation.

But Kenya and India say any ivory sales always create a market poachers and greedy middlemen are only too happy to service. And while the South Africans can afford to patrol their parks to keep out the poachers, the Kenyans - who rely heavily on elephants to attract tourists - cannot.

Mr Ndiritu is one of just 200 rangers who patrol Tsavo National Park, which covers an area the size of Switzerland. Before the 1989 ban, Tsavo's porous 600km perimeter was akin to the door of an ivory supermarket for poachers. The elephant population in the park plummeted from 45,000 to 6,000 in the previous 20 years; in the same period Kenya lost 110,000 of its 130,000 elephants.

Tsavo is now home to a growing herd of 8,000. Naftali Kio, the park's director, says lifting the ban would be disastrous."The level of poaching here is determined by the market elsewhere," he said. Kenyan poaching appears to have been given fresh impetus by the sales to Japan. Last year the Kenya Wildlife Service recovered 1,900kg of illegal ivory compared with the 3,000kg in the previous eight years.