JOHANNESBURG - The deliberations were long, the debate was impassioned and the votes were decisive. On Monday, members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora killed proposals to legalize trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn.
It was the star issue at this year's conference in Johannesburg, and one that experts say is not as simple as the opposing campaigns made it seem.
The United States and European Union were among the majority of nations that supported continuing the bans, with the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saying it is also important for consumer nations, like his, to influence consumers to stop wanting ivory and rhino horn.
"The United States has taken strong actions to impose a near-total ban on elephant ivory import, export and domestic sale," Dan Ashe said in a statement. "... Ivory should not have value unless it's attached to an elephant."
Nations with the world's largest elephant and rhino population — among them, Zimbabwe and Swaziland — argued that legal trade in these banned animal products will bring much-needed funds for conservation.
Conservation groups largely opposed the proposals.
"The decision to maintain the existing ban on international ivory trade was the right one for elephants," Ginette Hemley, the World Wildlife Fund's head of delegation to the conference, said in a statement.
"African elephants are in steep decline across much of the continent due to poaching for their ivory, and opening up any legal trade in ivory would complicate efforts to conserve them,” she said. “It could offer criminal syndicates new avenues to launder poached ivory, undermining law enforcement, and would undercut efforts to reduce the consumer demand that is driving the mass poaching.”
But elephant and rhino expert Tom Milliken says love has little to do with this issue. Money matters, too.
He says his organization, TRAFFIC, sides with the majority in its decision to not allow legal sales for now.
"But we are entirely sympathetic to the motivation that Swaziland has to leverage finance," he told VOA. "And this is the rub here, that if the global community is expecting that there will be rhinos in Africa, elephants in Africa, in perpetuity, who's going to pay for that to happen? Because the finance is just not available, and the more we foreclose on the avenues of realizing finance that Africans themselves can do — sustainable utilization of resources, trade, sport hunting, these sorts of things — and we're not replacing it with other tools in the toolbox, these are countries that are cash-strapped."
But the populations of these animals are equally vulnerable. The International Union for Conservation of Nature revealed the African elephant population has dropped by about 111,000 in the last decade. Earlier this year, the IUCN reported that rhino poaching has increased for the sixth consecutive year.
The most visible rhino and elephant defenders appealed to the heart. As the conference began last week, hundreds of campaigners marched against the proposals, passionately calling for protection for these iconic, beloved creatures.
Jan Creamer, president of Animal Defenders International, says her group unequivocally supports banning all trade in ivory and rhino.
"Human beings have to find a way to live alongside the other species that share our planet and to respect and preserve them and to do the best we can to give them space to live. We don't agree with exploitation of animals for their body parts," she told VOA. "The stories that we've heard from the people like the rangers at this conference are heartbreaking. These animals have been driven to extinction."
But the other side is equally passionate.
Tanya Jacobsen is a surprising advocate in favor of rhino horn sales. A vegetarian for ethical reasons, she works with the South Africa-based Rhino Alive campaign which, as its name indicates, wants to harvest rhino horn without killing the animals. Rhino horn is made of keratin, like human hair, and continuously grows.
"Our feeling is that rhino horn is a sustainable product that can be removed from a rhino humanely, without causing any harm at all to rhinos,” she said, “and based on this and based on the fact that rhino horn regrows at a rate of about one to two kilograms per year, we strongly feel that instead of having a situation where we're facing huge poaching dilemmas … that there is a sustainable, conservation-based solution to the crisis.”
These two species are discussed at every CITES conference, Milliken says, and as long as there are elephants and rhinos on this Earth, their future will be debated.