updated 10/5/2006 1:20:20 PM ET 2006-10-05T17:20:20

Three southern African countries that requested a one-off exception to the international ban on the trade in elephant ivory had their request denied by a U.N.-sponsored meeting Thursday.

The U.N. Environment Program said signatories to a 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species voted not to allow Botswana, Namibia and South Africa to sell 66 tons of ivory for the time being.

The decision was cautiously welcomed by groups campaigning for a total ban.

"The decision gives the elephants another nine months of relief from poachers," Peter Pueschel, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told The Associated Press.

"From our estimates at least 10,000 elephants are poached in Africa annually. In our view, the system used to monitor the elephants is by far not sufficient," Pueschel said.

Another vote on the sale, which was agreed to in principle in 2002, will take place in late May in The Hague, Netherlands, UNEP said in a statement.

In a separate debate, the CITES committee will decide Friday whether Japan has established sufficiently strong domestic controls on the sale of ivory to qualify as a trading partner if sales eventually proceed.

The sale was made dependent on whether data collected on illegal killing of elephants showed that their populations have recovered sufficiently.

The ivory in question comes from African herds, where tusks are taken from animals that have died of natural causes or been subject to emergency culling.

Botswana is seeking to export 22 tons of ivory, Namibia 11 tons, and South Africa 33 tons. Japan and China are bidding to buy the ivory, but so far only Japan has been recommended as a trading partner by the U.N. Environment Program.

Earlier this month, wardens in Chad's Zakouma National Park discovered the carcasses of 10 elephants stripped of their tusks and said more may have been slaughtered by poachers operating in the area.

Conservationists argue that any ivory trading threatens elephant populations by creating commercial incentives for poachers. Advocates of the sales say that trading in ivory from well-managed herds can benefit local populations and help pay for conservation efforts.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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