Michael McCarthy: Conservationists warned us of the dangers. Now look at the results

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All around the world, wildlife and habitats are under threat: forests are being cut down, seas are being polluted, fish stocks are plummeting, seabirds and dolphins are vanishing, and the great mammals such as India's tigers and Africa's rhinoceroses and elephants are falling to poachers.

Can this miserable process ever be stopped? Twenty years ago this year, it briefly seemed so, for the world community came together in Lausanne to ban the ivory trade and so halt the desperate elephant slaughter of the 1970s and 80s. But the ban was undermined, firstly by a Robert Mugabe-inspired auction of "legal" ivory in 1997 and then again by a similar but much larger sale late last year. Conservationists warned of what would happen if the sale went ahead – that if you give a boost to the "legal" trade, you are simply enhancing the opportunity for illegal, poached ivory to be laundered into it.

And if you give the trade the biggest boost possible, by opening up the world's largest ivory market, China, that consequence is even more assured.

Despite the warnings, UN member states, including Britain, voted to allow the sale and to allow China to take part, despite China's abysmal record of policing its own ivory industry. Now, three months later, the results are becoming apparent: Kenyan wildlife officials say there has been an unprecedented rise in elephant poaching and are linking it directly to the auctions. It is clear that only if there is no ivory trade at all (the original intention of those who banned it in 1989) will the African elephant ultimately be safe.

All the sophistry in the world about how legal sales can be tightly controlled – including from the World Wide Fund for Nature – will not stop the slaughter. Last year's decision was lamentable, and the British government should be ashamed for being a party to it.

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