The international body responsible for protecting endangered animals is to consider relaxing restrictions on the ivory trade, prompting fears such a move could trigger a huge rise in elephant poaching.
Wildlife experts warned against any loosening of the rules as several African countries pushed to end a near-global ban on sales of the material extracted from tusks.
Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe are all demanding they be allowed to sell off stockpiles of raw ivory on their home soil as well as from South Africa.
Zambia, meanwhile, is pressing to have the status of its elephants downgraded to a category “not necessarily threatened with extinction”, allowing its ivory to be legally sold.
Leaders of the four countries have put their controversial proposals to the next meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), to be held in Sri Lankan capital Colombo in May.
African elephant numbers have plummeted in recent decades, largely because of widespread poaching for ivory, which is illegally sold to south-east Asian buyers.
According to WWF, every year about 20,000 African elephants are killed by poachers for their tusks – an average of one every 25 minutes.
Born Free believes that populations have dropped from five million a century ago to fewer than a tenth of that number now.
Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, who argue that ivory trading will pay for conservation, want to sell government-owned stocks of raw ivory.
After seeing decades of poaching, Cites banned international sales of new ivory in 1989, allowing elephant numbers slowly to recover.
But in 1999 and 2008, Cites let first Japan, then Japan and China, buy many tons of ivory in experimental sales, which conservationists say enabled traffickers to again ply their trade because it can be impossible to tell legal ivory from poached.
Today China, the US and the UK have banned ivory sales but many countries still allow some commercial trade, and illegal poaching has continued despite efforts by African governments to crack down.
Cites watchers suspect on balance that the three proposals are unlikely to win the two-thirds majority – of 183 members – needed for them to pass.
“There isn’t really any appetite in the international community to agree to this,” said Colman O’Criodain, a wildlife trade expert for WWF.
But Peter Knights, chief executive of the WildAid charity, warned that any relaxation of restrictions could lead to a massive rise in elephants killed.
He said Cites’ earlier one-off sales had failed to stem demand.
“Between 1975 and 1989, elephant numbers halved due to poaching and ivory being laundered into the ‘legal’ trade,” he said. “In 2008 the experiment was re-run with similar results – poaching escalated up to 33,000 a year.
“History has shown that traders find a way to use legal trade as a poaching conduit so we need to use other income sources, such as tourism, to support conservation.”
The proposals are likely to be opposed by Kenya and Gabon, supported by conservationists, who believe even limited trade fuels demand and drives up killing.
Kenya and Gabon want elephants in southern Africa to be promoted from Appendix II to Appendix I, which would mean the creatures were officially considered at risk of extinction.
Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa have more than half of Africa’s total elephant populations between them.
In October, Botswana’s president Mokgweetsi Masisi joined the Giants Club, which aims to protect half of Africa’s elephants by 2020.
As human populations increase, wildlife habitats are under increasing pressure, putting the mammals at greater risk of being killed as they stray onto land where crops are grown in search of food.
In 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reported that Africa’s elephant population had suffered its worst decline in 25 years. In East Africa, elephant populations had nearly halved in a decade.
A census across 18 countries also found that in seven years, 30 per cent of Africa’s elephants had disappeared.
Zambia said elephants were competing with people in rural areas for resources and that Zambians would be more tolerant if they see “economic returns earned from the sustainable use of elephant”.
At its last meeting in Johannesburg in 2016, Cites rejected appeals to relax ivory trade bans, and Matt Collis, a Cites expert at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, agreed that unless anything substantial had changed, the new proposals would probably not have enough support.
Mr Collis said it made no sense to sell off stockpiles again when the poaching crisis remained so severe.
The “divisive” proposals were a distraction from what the world should focus on: supporting countries to put more resources into elephant protection, he said.
“The poaching crisis is still acute, and any legal market has the potential to stimulate demand for ivory,” he added.
China banned ivory trading in 2017, and last year Hong Kong promised to phase out its elephant ivory trade by 2021.
Last month a UK law banning ivory sales – with a few strict exceptions – passed through parliament.
But Vietnam, Thailand and Laos remain big markets.
The US has effectively banned ivory deals, and after some wrangling with Donald Trump, US officials now review permits on a case-by-case basis.
But the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory is Europe.
In 2017, the European Commission banned the export of raw ivory, but not products containing it. Just two months ago, officials shied away from introducing a total ban despite respondents to a consultation calling overwhelmingly for tighter rules.
Mr Collis said that in 2010 all African-range countries agreed the African Elephant Action Plan, tackling poaching on the ground and targeting transit countries and markets such as China.