In a victory claimed by conservationists seeking to shield Africa’s elephants from poachers, the main international agency protecting endangered species resolved on Monday to uphold a 21-year-old ban on the international trade in ivory, rejecting efforts by Tanzania and Zambia to dilute the prohibition.
With elephant poaching on the rise — despite increased populations of the animal in some countries — the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known by its acronym, Cites, turned down a Tanzanian proposal to permit a one-time sale of some 90 tons of its ivory stocks.
Hours later, Zambia withdrew a similar request for a one-time sale of 21 tons of tusks, but it sought a modest reduction in the international protection of its elephant population to permit eventual future trade. Despite support from the United States, that proposal, too, was defeated.
The votes represented a turnabout in the fortunes of conservationists at the current meeting of Cites in Doha, Qatar, where delegates last week defeated American-supported plans to ban international trade in bluefin tuna and to protect polar bears.
The moves by Zambia and Tanzania touched the heart of a long-running and often passionate debate about the conservation of elephant herds. Both countries insisted that the main threat to the animals — 27,000 in Zambia and 137,000 in Tanzania, by official counts — was not the international trade in ivory, often for customers in Asia, but the conflict between elephants and the often impoverished humans in the bushlands and savannas of eastern and central Africa.
The international trade prohibition was imposed in 1989 and has been relaxed only sparingly since then to permit three one-time sales. Each sale has touched off new debates about whether exemptions to the ban mainly benefit organized crime syndicates by reopening trade connections, allowing gangsters to peddle poached ivory in addition to the official sales of documented stocks held by governments. After the last one-time sale was completed in 2008, Cites agreed to a nine-year moratorium on such trades.
In its proposal for an easing of the ban, Tanzania said its plan aimed at “promoting sustainable conservation of the elephant population” by reinvestment of profits from a one-time sale in wildlife conservation and in support of “development activities of communities living within the elephant ecosystems.”
“Rural people do not tolerate the presence of elephants unless the costs of living with elephants can be offset by economic benefits derived from elephants,” the proposal said. Tanzania had been hoping to raise up to $20 million from the sale.
The Zambian proposal echoed the Tanzanian argument, saying, “The primary risk to the long-term survival of the elephant in Zambia is not international trade but increasing conflicts with legitimate human interests such as agriculture as shown by the rising number of human-elephant conflicts.
“The Zambian government by law owes it to the rural communities to conserve and to benefit from wildlife resources in a serious partnership,” the proposal said. “Situations where human beings rise against the elephant due to rising incidences of crop damage, injury and worse still, loss of human life, cannot be tolerated in an era where various sustainable use options for intervention exist” in other southern African countries.
But conservationists in the United States, Europe and other parts of Africa had argued that Tanzania and Zambia had not adequately combated poaching of elephants and the illegal ivory market, where the price of ivory has risen more than sevenfold since 2004 to as much as $1,500 now, according to The Associated Press.
“To permit any step toward further trade in ivory makes no sense whatsoever,” said Jason Bell-Leask of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, in a statement before the Doha meeting. “It flies in the face of every basic conservation principle.”
In a telephone interview from Doha after the votes on Monday, Mr. Bell-Leask said the outcome of the voting on Monday was “a victory for elephants” and a “huge relief” for conservationists.
“Both Tanzania and Zambia have been implicated in some of the largest seizures” of poached ivory in recent years, he said.