African nations agreed Thursday to a massive ivory sell-off and a nine-year freeze on further sales, in a move conservationists hoped would mean a reprieve for elephant herds from poachers and smuggling syndicates.
The compromise, reached after heated negotiations lasting three weeks, effectively called a truce in the recurring tussles between Africans wanting to cash in on stocks of accumulated tusks and those who fear easing a 1989 trade ban would put more pressure on their dwindling elephant herds.
The 171-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, approved the deal in what the European Union called as a milestone for the wildlife trade organization.
"Nine years is a short time in the life of an elephant, but it is still good," said Bourama Niagate, a delegate from Mali, which had proposed a 20-year moratorium on discussing ivory sales.
The arrangement allows South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe to empty government inventories in a single sale to Japan, which guaranteed not to reexport the raw ivory. Revenues from the sale are earmarked for conservation programs.
With careful management, herds in the southern African states have rebounded in the last 18 years, but poaching has plagued countries in West and Central Africa where plundered natural resources have fueled civil wars.
The elephant issue has dominated every meeting of CITES for decades, and delegates said the Thursday's compromise will allow the regulatory body to focus its energies on any number of other species facing heightened threats from globalization, climate change and diseases like bird flu.
CITES, a 1975 treaty, lists more than 7,000 animals and 32,000 plants that are subject to trade regulations and require export permits. About 800 of them are banned. Members meet every two to three years to review the lists.
It was unclear how many tons of ivory were in government stocks to be dumped on the market. Estimates ranged from about 70 metric tons to more than 200.
Some environmentalists worried the one-time sale will stimulate a demand that cannot be legally met.
"It will encourage the illegal market, and that's what kills elephants," said Michael Wamithi, the Kenya-based elephant expert for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
It also sends a signal to consumers "that ivory is back in style," he said.
CITES chief enforcement officer, John Sellar, said the legal trade could ease the pressure for smuggled ivory. It could "begin to squeeze out the illegal trade," he said. "Logically, one would certainly hope that this is going to have a major beneficial effect."
Chinese gangs big on ivory
Police say organized Chinese crime syndicates are behind a sharp rise in smuggling. Interpol registered 13 major interdictions of raw ivory in the last two years worth $26 million, said Peter Younger, head of Interpol's wildlife unit.
Last week, CITES cleared Botswana, Namibia and South Africa to sell 60 metric tons of ivory, as agreed in principal at the last conference in 2004.
Japan was approved as the sole "trading partner" after CITES inspectors were assured it was controlling its black market and it would ensure the ivory would go to legal outlets.
But the three countries, joined by Zimbabwe, came to this year's conference with a proposal that would scrap the 1989 ban and set annual quotas. Kenya and Mali countered with a proposal for a 20-year moratorium.
The United States objected to including Zimbabwe in the deal, citing reports that ivory from that country's stocks had slipped into the illegal market. Independent monitors from the nongovernment TRAFFIC organization said it found no evidence of government collusion in a few illicit deals, however.
Negotiations on the compromise document lasted until nearly 3 a.m. Thursday, succeeding only after European intermediaries stepped out of the talks and left the African ministers on their own.
Germany's chief delegate Jochen Flasbarth, who led mediation efforts, said he was surprised by the breadth of the compromise.
"This is really a great day for the elephants," he said. "When I came here I never expected such a super response."
The agreement also established an elephant conservation fund and the Netherlands, as host country, announced a $133,000 donation to get it started.
The final document did not specify how much ivory would be released. But in a key compromise by the southern Africans, it said the four countries could sell their inventories as verified by CITES as of Jan. 31, 2007.