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TOO SOON TO LIFT IVORY TRADE BAN

Two years ago, the world agreed to an international ban on the ivory trade as a way to save dwindling elephant herds being decimated by poachers equipped with automatic weapons. The ban seems to be having its desired effect as elephants are making a comeback in several African nations. But it is far too soon to start easing those restrictions.

Some 1,300 delegates to the 112-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), are gathered in Tokyo through March 13 in their annual meeting to update rules on species at risk. Elephants and bluefin tuna are the center of attention.As usual, the proposals are surrounded by controversy. One person's endangered species is another's livelihood. But the short-term success with the elephant problem seems to argue for the benefits of protection. Prohibiting certain animal harvests in order to save the species certainly makes more economic sense than seeing creatures become virtually extinct.

Five African nations are arguing for limited trade in elephant meat and hides, while keeping the ban on ivory. They say herds are flourishing. But others say the move is premature and that any relaxation of rules to allow killing of elephants would stimulate a black market trade in ivory.

The plea for patience appears to be the wisest course since CITES meets every year and can always make changes later. Two years of prohibiting any trade in elephants seems too brief. Poachers could undo the gains of those two years in a matter of months. Any relaxing of rules should be cautious.

The bluefin tuna controversy erupted after a Swedish proposal to abolish trade in the western Atlantic bluefin tuna and to limit commercial trade in the eastern Atlantic bluefin. Japan, which consumes half the 30,000-ton-a-year catch, is protesting, saying the tuna is not endangered.

But given Japan's continued taking of whales after the rest of the world had condemned the practice is not the best record in dealing with endangered ocean species.

Many other appeals are being made to lift international bans on export of mahogany, the import of cheetahs and leopards, Manchurian tigers and Chinese alligators and to monitor exports of gallbladders and paws of the American black bear, the latter items prized in the Orient as a food delicacy and as a source of medicine.

In most cases, the best course is caution. The 2,500 animal species and the 35,000 plant species on restricted lists were put there for good reason after serious study. Let's go slow on removing them.