ANIMAL protection groups are breathing a sigh of relief this week that a possible threat to Africa's dwindling elephant herds has been averted.
Faced with strong opposition, a group of five southern African states has abandoned efforts to win international backing to resume trade in elephant meat and hide. Environmentalists had cautioned that such trade could encourage poaching.
But spokesmen for the five states, home to half of Africa's elephants, warn they may yet circumvent the terms of an agreement banning all elephant trade. The agreement was reaffirmed this week in a global conference on endangered species in Kyoto, Japan.
"We have to weigh the costs and benefits of staying in the treaty," said Botswana's delegate, Ponatshego Kedikilwe.
The Kyoto meeting, which ends today, brought together most of the 112 signers of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty. Trade in nearly 100 species had been discussed, but the question of whether to change the status of elephants from "endangered" to "threatened" status was the big issue.
Trade in a "threatened" species is restricted. For an "endangered" species, it is banned.
The southern African "range" states - Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and South Africa - had sought permission to resume trade in elephant hides and meat while continuing a ban on ivory. Delegates from the five states argued that they have as much right to profit from their own natural resources as other nations, as long as their elephant herds are being sustained. The argument is supported by some conservation groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, which favor the idea of "sustained use" for sp ecies that are replenishing at a constant rate or better. Critics responded that the sale of any elephant parts would open the door to poaching, which would keep the market for ivory alive.
"The rationale is that countries that are properly managing elephant herds should be rewarded by being allowed to trade," says Christine Stevens, president of the Animal Welfare Institute. "The problem is that as soon as you have the trade you lose the elephant."
Opponents also argue that the practice of "split listing," that is, exempting certain nations from CITES regulations, makes no sense for species like elephants, whose natural habitat crosses national boundaries.
When the elephant was classified as "threatened" in 1978, the total African population was estimated at 1.5 million. Today only 600,000 survive.
At the last CITES meeting, in 1989, the US pushed to have all elephants classified as "endangered." US delegates traveled to the Kyoto meeting, which began last week, without a set position.
"We were waiting to see the scientific evidence that was presented at the conference," explains one American official. "It came down to a judgment call as to whether the proposal to downlist [reclassify] would lead to a resurgence of poaching."
Animal protection groups insist that elephants are worth more to African countries alive than dead because they are a magnet for the profitable "ecotourist" trade.
In other actions in Kyoto, the US and Japan beat back a Swedish proposal to impose a ban on fishing of bluefin tuna in the North Atlantic, where the species is facing extinction. Instead, the two countries proposed a conservation plan to be administered outside the CITES regime.