A landmark decision on Thursday to lift an eight-year ban on ivory trade was as much about the elephants' survival as the need to recognize conservation efforts by poorer states.
After 10 days of intense debate, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to allow Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe to sell ivory to Japan as a reward for good wildlife policies.
The liberation hymn of southern Africa, "Nkosi Sikele iAfrika," resounded through the purple convention hall as southern African delegates celebrated what they said was a victory in winning Western respect for their needs and hard work. "We are delighted that so many people in CITES understand and support our sovereignty and our right to use our resources as we wish," said Zimbabwean Environmental Minister Chen Chimutengwende.
The crux of the issue was less what happens to the lumbering beast than CITES's ability after 22 years to protect animals without trade bans and reward poor countries that have made gains in wildlife management.
The buzzword at this crossroads was "sustainable use" - which translated into normal language means limited harvesting of animals for commercial purposes without endangering the species.
"There's been a swing ... an entirely new thing has happened. For the first time in 10 years, they have moved from protective conservation policies to sustainable use," said Edmond Bradley Martin, one of the world's leading experts on rhinos and elephants.
David Brackett, who chaired the debate, said the elephant matter epitomized the growing concern of this 139-member body with community management of resources and finding compromises between countries with different needs.
The passion raised by the issues was obvious in the support the three countries won from Latin America, where similar questions have been raised. "This is a victory for all developing countries which have good conservation policies," said Herminia Serrano Mendez, head of the Cuban delegation.
Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe argued that allowing restricted trade in elephant products, such as their estimated 180 tons of stockpiled ivory, would earn them millions of dollars of much-needed revenue. They demanded recognition that they have kept their elephant populations up to 150,000 with model programs lauded around the world. They asked Western animal rights groups to understand that their elephant populations have grown so large that they have become menaces that must be culled because they trample fields and people.
The proposal to downlist elephant products from Appendix 1 to Appendix 2 - and thus allow restricted trade - envisioned selling ivory only to Japan. But loud opponents - among them the United States and West African countries whose elephant populations are dwindling - expressed the concern that too few controls exist to prevent a spree of poaching and smuggling elsewhere.
The motion looked more in danger than the elephants when it lost by three votes at its first tabling on Tuesday. But South Africa, which wants to remove its white rhino from the danger list, drafted an amendment that made the proposal more palatable to critics. It recommended lifting the ban only after 18 months and imposing strict trade quotas. Later suggestions on tightening conditions, including international monitoring of trade and reinvesting revenue in conservation, were enough to sail the vote through.
According to the Washington-based World Wildlife Fund, lifting the ban was needed to spur CITES out of inertia, although it warned that stringent conditions must be in place. "Maintaining the status quo would have been most unfortunate," says Ginette Hemley, director of international wildlife policy at WWF. "We would have run the risk that the three countries would stop being team players, and then the ivory trade could have run completely out of control. Some sort of compromise was necessary."