The world's nations agreed three years ago to ban ivory trade to stop the destruction of Africa's elephant herds. Five southern African nations say it worked so well it's time to relax the rules.
But those countries, led by Zimbabwe and South Africa, are expected to face stiff opposition when they present their case to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Monday.Opponents of change, including Greenpeace and other environmental groups, will focus on allegations those countries have ignored poaching and allowed illegal private trade in ivory.
Resumption of limited sales of elephant tusks is expected to be the dominant topic when the convention's 122 nations meet in Kyoto, Japan, Monday.
The convention, which operates under the auspices of the United Nations, has banned or limited international trade in about 2,500 animal and 35,000 plant species.
It banned world ivory sales at its last meeting, in 1989, after Africa's elephant population plummeted to 600,000 from an estimated 1.3 million 10 years earlier.
The ban worked perhaps too well, say the governments of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Malawi.
These countries have healthy elephant herds and say they are forced to kill some elephants each year to prevent overpopulation. Profits from ivory sales could be put back into wildlife management, they argue.
Current herds total between 573,000 and 598,000, and the population in southern Africa has risen slightly since 1989, according to Greenpeace.
Zimbabwe, with an estimated 75,000 elephants, says it could earn $30 million a year from culled elephants' ivory. A spokesman for South Africa's Rhino and Elephant Foundation, John Ilsley, said the ban had cost his country about $3 million that could have helped improve wildlife programs.
"We know it's an emotional issue," Botswana's deputy director of wildlife, Nigel Hunter, said in October. "Now we have too many elephants and would like to swing the balance in favor of the human poulation."
The five nations aren't asking for a complete lifting of the ban, but rather a reclassification of elephants to permit controlled trade in ivory.
"If reason should prevail, the downlisting of elephants would be the only logical result," Namibia's wildlife and tourism minister, Niko Bessinger, said Wednesday.
But a recent report by a London-based conservation group, the Environmental Investigation Agency, is expected to be used by opponents of a change.
The group said Zimbabwean and South African soldiers were involved in poaching and ivory smuggling. The governments deny the allegations and say they are suffering because of neglect in other African nations, where war and poaching have decimated wildlife.