Far from the African grasslands, a Geneva-based international agency is agonizing over whether to approve a partial reopening of the southern African ivory trade as of March 1999.
The good news for elephants is that the question may be moot: Jewelers report demand for ivory is dead in most of the world, thanks to a 10-year-old ban on ivory sales and consumers' growing distaste for tusk products.
"People are too embarrassed or ashamed even to ask about ivory," says Johannesburg jewelry wholesaler Leslie Kroll.
No one knows if the market is permanently gone because consumers are thumbs down on tusk-wear, or if it is simply dormant, ready to boom - along with elephant poaching - if given the least encouragement by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) at its February meeting.
The dilemma facing CITES officials is whether a decision to approve a one-time-only sale to Japan of 65 tons of ivory in March would blow the lid off the global ban. Only ivory from Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia would be sold.
The sales ban will remain in the rest of the world, but the news of this single pro-sales decision could encourage consumers worldwide to ignore the ban, and poachers to resume slaughtering elephants.
Ivory, like fur, is one of those red-flag luxury items that can get even the most mildly eco-conscious person into a lather. Many find it unconscionable to consider any ivory sales, even of tusks from elephants that die of natural causes.
In Zimbabwe alone, an estimated 3,000 of the country's 66,000 elephants die of natural causes each year, yielding more than eight tons of ivory annually. Strapped African governments want to sell ivory to finance the conservation efforts required of them by CITES. Such funding is critical, because donor countries that pushed for the 1989 ban on ivory trade did not respect commitments to fund elephant conservation action plans produced by elephant-rich countries.
In a highly controversial decision taken at their June 1997 meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, the countries signatory to the CITES convention agreed to consider a one-time-only sale to Japan in 1999. First, however, the three African countries involved must meet certain conditions regarding protection of elephants, particularly effective antipoaching measures.
A segment of the animal rights lobby has never accepted that 1997 decision by CITES, and it seems to see poachers behind every tree.
In November the Humane Society of the United States sent to CITES a detailed report of a telephone conversation with an anonymous Zimbabwean wildlife official. He claimed elephant poaching rose 300 percent between July and October 1998.
This came on top of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's 1997 claim that poaching rose 50 percent right after CITES decided to reconsider ivory sales.
Both claims have been debunked by CITES and its highly respected partners, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. (The latter two have jointly created TRAFFIC, an agency that monitors the poaching and sale of endangered species.)
CITES official Jonathan Bardzo says he checked on the Humane Society's concerns while on a November trip to determine whether Zimbabwe should be permitted to make its 1999 sale to Japan. "We found most of the claims were incorrect." He adds that people who believe poaching is on the rise may not be expert in determining how or when a given elephant died.
"But if poaching is at all on the increase, then ivory is moving, which is what worries us," says Teresa Telecky, director of the Humane Society's wildlife trade program.
"People have gotten the message that 'We can't buy it, we don't want it,' but the resumption of trade may fuel their interest, in turn fueling the illegal trade. I think demand is just dormant. In the US people are very aware of what happens to elephants in order to yield ivory, but in Japan they have a long tradition of using ivory."
Ms. Telecky says Far Eastern demand for ivory may be the most enduring.
But Mr. Bardzo says he visited Japanese jewelry shops on a recent investigative mission and found that even the tradition of buying ivory signet stamps is on the wane.
The proof in terms of marketplace demand will be in whether Japan acts on its option to buy the African ivory, should CITES give the all-clear for that sale in the new year.