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Bid to Ease Ban on Elephant Products Dropped : Wildlife: Signers of conservation treaty feared South African proposal to sell hides and meat would have encouraged poaching. Pretoria says broad opposition was based on politics, not science, but withdraws plan.

November 16, 1994|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — After a bitter debate pitting nation against nation, a campaign by South Africa to ease a global ban on trade of elephant products was overwhelmingly rejected Tuesday by countries convening to revise the world's largest conservation treaty.

The defeat was a major disappointment to South Africa as well as Japan, Canada and other nations that say most governments in the international pact surrendered to emotional tugs and politics, rather than science, when deciding which of the world's creatures warrant protection.

Delegations of 118 nations are in Fort Lauderdale debating changes in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a 1973 pact that aims to control exploitation of rare plants and animals for profit. Exporting and importing are prohibited for more than 600 species--from parrots to pandas--and restricted for thousands of others.

At this world summit of government officials and their entourages, the ninth under the treaty, no issue has been more tumultuous and divisive than African elephants.

Beloved by Western culture, the tusked creatures are a symbol of the worldwide conservation movement. Trade in all elephant products, mainly ivory tusks--once an ultra-profitable enterprise in Africa--has been banned since 1989 because of steep declines in elephant populations caused by poaching.

Elephants are flourishing now in South Africa, which is renowned for its strong conservation programs. That nation, which controls its herd of 9,000 elephants by killing 350 per year, asked for permission to sell hides from the culled elephants to U.S. boot manufacturers and hair and meat to other markets.

Under the proposal, ivory trade would have remained forbidden, and President Nelson Mandela's government promised to use all the $1 million in annual revenue from the elephant products for its wildlife conservation programs.

On Tuesday, after other African nations, the United States and all of Europe declared that they would vote against the plan or abstain, South Africa withdrew its proposal. Most nations, especially in the Western world, were unwilling to take on the politically and emotionally charged issue even though they called South Africa's proposal reasonable and scientifically justified.

"We find it very disconcerting and disappointing," said Johan Neethling, a member of the South African delegation and director of the conservation agency in the country's largest province. "It's such a reasonable proposal and we find there are so many groups here that don't even want it discussed. . . . We're not talking science here, or principles, we're talking politics."

South Africa's request posed a gut-wrenching dilemma for the 123 other nations that signed the pact: Should that country be rewarded for its strong conservation program and be allowed to sell hides of elephants that would be killed anyway? Or would easing the ban, even though it excluded ivory, revive the tidal wave of elephant smuggling and killing across Africa?

The World Conservation Union, the scientific adviser to the treaty nations, supported South Africa, saying its elephants are "well protected and the culling program is based on sustainable harvests, underpinned by a sound scientific plan."

But other African nations were firmly opposed, and many tried to persuade South Africa to withdraw its proposal right up to the moment before it was brought before the delegations Tuesday morning.

"The African position is basically no, and few people even want to discuss it," said David Western, director of the Kenya Wildlife Service. "There is fear that it will undermine all the advances made in containing elephant poaching. South Africa's case is sound."

Western said illegal elephant hunting in Kenya has increased in the past two months because poachers have been speculating wrongly that the treaty ban on ivory would soon ease. India reported a similar occurrence.

Led by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the U.S. delegation was sympathetic with South Africa, and praised its management of elephant herds, but feared the issue becoming divisive in Africa.

After internal debate and consultation with Vice President Al Gore, the U.S. delegation remained undecided until the last moment, preferring to see what other African nations decided. The United States finally declared that the proposal is "very strongly justified" scientifically and would not threaten elephant populations, but ultimately, citing "the importance of solidarity" in Africa, announced it would abstain.

U.S. support was considered particularly vital to South Africa since most of the hides would be exported to Texas.

"It's opportunistic," Neethling said of the opposition. "If people feel our proposal is reasonable, why not stand up and be counted?"

Many Western nations feared a backlash from their elephant-loving publics--raised on Dumbo and circuses and outraged by photos of carcasses with sawed-off tusks--if they opened the door even slightly to trade.

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