By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, The Hague
African countries have agreed a deal on the immediate future of the ivory trade.
Southern African nations will be permitted a further one-off sale of legally acquired ivory from stockpiles, with funds going for conservation.
No further sales will then be allowed for nine years.
The deal, agreed at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting, comes after days of intense wrangling.
Despite some concerns, it was adopted by consensus. Negotiations could be re-opened before the meeting closes at the end of the week, but that appears highly unlikely.
The ivory issue has dominated this meeting, with Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe chasing regular export quotas, and another African bloc led by Kenya and Mali looking for a 20-year moratorium on any further sales.
They believe that legal sales stimulate poaching for illegal markets.
The international ivory trade has been banned since 1989, but CITES has twice previously granted one-off sales from legally acquired stockpiles in southern African countries with robust elephant populations and a good record of combating poaching.
The new deal would permit the four southern African states to make a one-off sale of raw ivory which was held in government-registered stocks as of 31 January 2007. They would then refrain from making further requests for sales for nine years.
"It is the best we could achieve for the African elephant," said Patrick Omondi, head of species conservation and management with Kenya Wildlife Service.
"We have at least a nine-year resting period, and I think it will help us address the issues we wanted to address; issues to do with elephant populations that are too low and unviable, to do with enforcement and capacity building, and also to see the impact [on poaching and illegal markets] of the one-off sale."
It is not clear exactly how much ivory will be involved in the sale. Botswana recently claimed to have about 45 tonnes of legal stocks, and estimates for the total held across the four nations run between 100 and 200 tonnes.
Japan is the only registered destination, and no re-exports from Japan are permitted.
Proceeds must "żbe used exclusively for elephant conservation and community conservation and development programmes within or adjacent to the elephant range".
Limited sales of live animals, hides and hair, leather goods and ekipas - small ivory ornaments traditional to Namibia - would also be permitted.
Botswana's environment minister Onkokame Kitso Mokaila was also content with the deal, and suggested it gave a chance for reconciliation between the African factions.
But he was scathing about the role that some environmental organisations had played in the process. One NGO representative had told the BBC earlier in the meeting that they had "basically written the Kenyan proposals".
"I believe certain NGOs take advantage of Africans," said Mr Mokaila.
Limited sales of ekipas and other goods will be permitted
"I feel where there is hunger, there is opportunity for such NGOs; a starving person will listen to anyone with money."
But Patrick Omondi dismissed the allegation that environmental groups were controlling Kenya's policies.
"That is not true at all," he said. "They must have given us advice in terms of the layout, but the actual decision that we need that proposal comes from the government."
One European delegate noted that his government would not be comfortable with allowing NGOs the amount of influence which one group in particular appeared to have with Kenya.
In return, there were allegations from some NGOs that the southern African bloc had "bullied" countries opposed to the legal sale.
Missing the point?
Despite consensus support for the deal, some governments and NGOs expressed concern over two aspects in particular.
One is the inclusion of Zimbabwe, where illegal markets are not as well regulated as observers would like.
A recent report from the organisation Traffic, which monitors the illegal ivory trade on behalf of CITES, named Zimbabwe as a country where illicit trading "remains persistent".
And Todd Willens, head of the US delegation, told the conference that during a US-funded survey last year, "939 active poaching camps were observed in a north-eastern state in Zimbabwe, representing a six-fold increase in poaching activity since 2001".
Nevertheless, neither the US nor any other delegation tried to exclude Zimbabwe from the sale, perhaps because that would have broken the deal completely.
A larger concern is that the focus on trade is obscuring a much more important issue - that poaching and illegal trade are rife and unregulated, with elephants suffering as a result.
"The consensus marks the first time in nearly than 20 years that opposing factions are now speaking with one voice," commented Dr Sue Lieberman, director of the global species programme at the environmental group WWF.
"Unfortunately, however, time ran out at the conference to deal effectively with the critical threat to elephants in the wild, namely poaching and illegal domestic ivory markets."
Traffic's most recent assessment, discussed here, noted that the volume of illegal ivory entering the international market has increased over the last two years, with enforcement lacking in many central and western African nations.