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Leading article: Save the elephant from China

If the People's Republic of China is licensed as an official buyer of elephant ivory at a UN meeting in Geneva today, it will be one of the biggest setbacks to have occurred in international wildlife conservation, and a dire threat to the future survival of elephants in the wild both in Africa and in Asia.

China wants to be allowed to bid for ivory from four southern African countries – South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe – which were given permission to trade in ivory in 1997 in a misguided decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – only eight years after Cites member states, including Britain, had agreed to ban the ivory trade completely all around the world.

The 1989 total ban was seen as the only way to choke off the demand for ivory that was sending African elephant populations plunging at the hands of poachers. And it worked, and poaching declined sharply thereafter. The partial lifting of the ban in 1997 was a worrying development but, at least in the subsequent auction of 50 tons of ivory, the sale was limited to one country – Japan – as the other potential buyer, China, was regarded as having insufficient safeguards against illegal trading. Now another auction is in prospect, and China wants to join in, claiming that it has cleaned up its act.

To allow it to do so would be disastrous. It does not matter how tight China's enforcement procedures now are. Overnight the world market for ivory would balloon, providing myriad opportunities for illicit ivory to be laundered into the legal stock, and offering temptation to poachers right across Africa, where at least 20,000 elephants a year are currently being illegally killed.

Disturbingly, the British Government, which has a vote in the meeting, looks as though it will go along with China's wishes. Yet ministers will not come clean about Britain's voting intentions. Yesterday they were engaged in that shabbiest of official procedures, hiding behind officials, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) claiming that the matter rested on the judgement of the Defra official at the meeting, Trevor Salmon.

To pretend that the British Government's policy on a question of major international importance is dependent solely on the view of a mid-ranking civil servant from Bristol is laughable. The Biodiversity minister, Joan Ruddock, needs to spell out what her position is, as does her boss, the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn. Britain should vote firmly against allowing China to buy ivory. If it does not, and the bad times return for yet another threatened species, at least we will know where responsibility lies.