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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

African States Put Ivory Trade on Hold

NAIROBI, Kenya -- In a surprise move, African nations Monday reached a compromise deal on the controversial trade in ivory, agreeing to halt any sales until an effective system to combat elephant poaching is implemented.

Botswana, Nambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa withdrew proposals that would have allowed them to sell off their stockpiles of elephant tusks. Kenya, joined by India, said it would not oppose the trade in live elephants and their hides.

The consensus was reached shortly before delegates at the 150-nation United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, were to debate the issue. Both sides said the compromise was a victory.

"The message to the poachers is that the prospects of dealing in ivory illegally is zero at the moment, and the prospects for the future are not certain,'' Nehemiah Rotich, head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, said. Elephants in this East African nation, which relies heavily on revenue from wildlife tourism, were decimated by poaching in the 1970s and 1980s.

But delegations from the southern African nations that wanted some ivory sales also said they were satisfied because moves to place an all-out ban on ivory had been quashed. The issue will be raised again at the next CITES meeting, about three years from now, and in the meantime the countries will try to establish an effective way to monitor the killing of elephants and the ivory trade.

"We have achieved the principle that trade in ivory is an option,'' said Mohammed Valli Moosa, South Africa's minister of environmental affairs and tourism.

The sale of elephant hide was agreed to because it takes much longer for poachers to skin an elephant than it does for them to extract or hack off the elephant's tusks, and it is much less lucrative. Few poachers are expected to do it.

Environmental observers who were privy to the closed sessions said the southern African nations compromised because they anticipated their proposals would have been defeated. A two-thirds majority of all the CITES member states would have been needed.

Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe - all of which have abundant elephant populations - were allowed by CITES to make onetime ivory sales to Japan last year.

South Africa had joined their push this year to win the right to sell its stocks.

Those southern African nations have argued that the money raised by limited and controlled sale of ivory from culled animals or those that die naturally could be applied to conservation and community development, actually helping elephant populations.

Thabo Masipa, who represents a forum for communities and nongovernmental organizations in southern Africa, said prohibiting the sale of ivory would deny rural communities the right to use their natural resources for their own benefit.

African elephant populations were cut in half in the 1970s and 1980s, leading conservationists to push for an all-out ban on ivory trade. CITES approved of the ban in 1989 in an attempt to save the species from extinction.

"There should be no further ivory sale until there is an adequate monitoring system,'' said famed elephant conservationist Iain Douglas-Hamilton of the British charity Save the Elephants.

"Otherwise, the risk is too great that we would return to the slaughter of the 1970s and '80s.'