WASHINGTON — LOBBYING - even politely - for international support to kill African elephants is not exactly viewed here as politically correct behavior, especially considering the years it took to squelch the ivory trade that threatened the species with extinction.But the hard facts of science sometimes lag behind political consciousness. That's why Nigel Hunter had the unenviable task of explaining on Capitol Hill and among conservation organizations here this month that Botswana, his Southern African nation, wants to resume killing elephants and selling the skins, meat, and ivory. International protection of elephants has caused dramatic increases in Botswana herds: The elephant population rose from 40,000 in 1981 to 67,000 in 1989. So, says Mr. Hunter, cropping - killing just the 3 to 5 percent annual growth in elephant population - is a necessary conservation management measure to sustain a healthy herd of elephants. "The growing population of elephants is causing increasing conflicts, and we want to take the decision more in favor of the humans who live alongside the elephant," explains Hunter, who is deputy director of Botswana's Department of Wildlife and National Parks. As elephant populations rise, they become nuisances to rural areas where farms and homes are damaged by elephants ranging off their traditional preserves, he says. Moreover, given the animal's huge appetite for water and vegetation, an overpopulation of elephants also endangers the environmental resources they - and other species - need to survive. Botswana, says Hunter, estimates that the nation's preserves can sustain just 55,000 elephants. Hunter's visit is just the beginning of anticipated lobbying efforts by Southern African nations in preparation for the biennial meeting in March of participants in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Killing elephants violates no international law. Under CITES, the international trade of elephant products is illegal. But Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa want to sell the skins, meat, and ivory of the cropped animals on the international market in order to offset the expense of scientifically managing a kill. Also, the sale of the products would provide local communities close to the elephant ranges with economic benefits. These Southern African nations want to downgrade the CITES status of elephants from endangered to threatened, so 2,000 elephants killed annually could be sold. But CITES is just the first layer of protection that would need to be rolled back. US endangered species laws, for example, don't permit the sale of elephant products in the US. There is great debate over the economics of the ivory trade: whether keeping ivory totally out of circulation and having no market for it at all eliminates the pressure for poaching or whether small regulated amounts of ivory sales can be tolerated without sparking massive poaching. That debate aside, officials of conservation organizations here generally agree with the science behind animal population management. But privately they acknowledge the political dilemma it creates for them with their lay memberships. "Yes there is agreement in the [environmental] community that the numbers could be managed. But all that a regular person sees is the shooting of elephants," says an official with a major US conservation group, who asked that his name not be used. "There's a lot of education to be done in developed countries," the official says, explaining that the anthropomorphic traits of species often endear them to nature lovers in ways not compatible with the way indigenous cultures feel about their wildlife. Hunter says this is the source of much of his problem in lobbying for support. "The dilemma we see is they [environmental groups] employ trained skilled people ... but they are answerable to a constituency that doesn't necessarily appreciate it." Hunter explains his own dilemma this way: "If you need the support of local people in [overall] efforts to support conservation and tourism, you need appreciation of the elephant in the local population. But that appreciation might be expressed differently for locals, if 80 percent of crop damage is due to one species [the elephant], than for someone from London with a camera."