The argument goes something like this: Developing countries are just trying to feed their teeming poor and hungry. All they want is a chance to sell what is rightfully theirs to sell. Carefully managed, of course, to ensure “sustainable use.”

The problem is, holier-than-thou environmentalists in the industrialized world are bent on preventing these poor nations from selling their natural heritage, secretly hoping to keep these peoples backward and primitive.

Care to disagree? Expect to be labeled elitist, racist and worse. The white man’s burden comes in handy for proponents of trade in marginal and unusual species.

In contrast, those promoting trade in ivory and turtle shells (and by association, such novelties as bear innards, tiger parts and live primates) are generous, high-minded guys, selflessly dedicated to aiding the victimized Third World. (That they are also profiting handsomely from government, trade and industry support is beside the point.)

Last week, as government officials from 151 nations gathered in Nairobi for the 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the proponents of “sustainable culling of the wildlife populations” once again took their annual swipe at conservationists.

For 10 days, while delegates debated numerous proposals concerning plant and animal species, hundreds of individuals, from hard-core protectionists to “sustainable use” advocates, clamored to influence the delegates’ votes.

Here at home, the CITES issue that usually generates the most news is whaling. This year, Japan and Norway made several proposals concerning minke and gray whales, seeking to downlist the two species from CITES Appendix I to Appendix II. (Appendix I is a protection category for species threatened with extinction. II is for species of plants and animals that are not now threatened with extinction, but need monitoring). Despite the use of secret ballots in preliminary voting, delegates still rejected the whalers’ proposals.

Adding irony to insult (and absurdity, cullists would say), minke whales now number close to 1 million, certainly enough to be downlisted from Appendix I; maybe even enough to cull a couple of thousand a year without threatening the total minke population. Such is the fickle nature of international wildlife politics.

As with numerous other species that are killed, bought, sold, cut up and carved, numbers are only part of the story. From whales and ivory to live species of plants and animals, human greed, ignorance and hubris all contribute uncertainty to the debate over exploitation. Nevertheless, cullists continue to insist that decisions should be made based on the “science” of numbers alone.

Unfortunately, trade in novel species and goods cannot be controlled like so much water through a faucet set to drip at a steady trickle more or less indefinitely. Trade in these species is far more likely to resemble a leaky dike. Pressure from illicit trade grows, and eventually bursts through wherever resistance is weakest. Without far more comprehensive retailer oversight and enforcement of import controls, illegal trade and smuggling will tend to swell from a trickle to a steady stream.

Take ivory, for example. The sustainable-use crowd would very much like to restart the international ivory trade. This is arguably to help fund conservation efforts and local economies in Africa, but primarily a symbolic effort to benefit Japan’s ailing ivory industry and the long-term wildlife policy goals of sustainable users.

Unfortunately, the last to benefit are the locals. Japan’s traders and retailers and African government officials take the lion’s share, leaving but a trickle of benefit for villagers.

The ivory business has been stagnant since 1989, due to a ban on international trade and economic recession. The fear is that if the ivory industry is allowed to die a natural death, other near-death industries, such as whaling and turtle shell (bekko) carving, will soon succumb to inevitable Darwinian economics.

Sustainable-use advocates are therefore hoping to get the ivory trade up and running without too much press coverage of “the leaks” that are already occurring. Should they succeed, the “ivory success story” will become a poster child for justifying renewed efforts to exploit any and all other species, whether markets exist or not.

In 1997 elephants in three African nations were downlisted to Appendix II under CITES, and last year CITES allowed a one-time sale of ivory to Japan (approximately 5,600 tusks, 49,735 kg, valued at over $5 million) from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Despite Japanese government assurances at CITES last week that efforts to prevent illegal trade have been successful, the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society has documented an ongoing pattern of smuggling, including a number of “major” incidents since 1997.

In a report prepared for CITES, JWCS concludes, “It can be inferred that the downlisting and resumption of ivory trade have been stimulating illegal trade in ivory, as well as the domestic marketing of and demand for ivory hanko [personal seals] in Japan.”

In a similar finding, India’s representative to CITES noted last week that elephant poaching has increased in his country since 1997.

Jim Armstrong, deputy secretary general of the CITES secretariat, assured delegates that based on eight national reports on illegal killings, illegal poaching had not increased in the three nations allowed to trade ivory to Japan. He conceded, however, that illegal poaching had increased in some nations, though “the relationship with authorized trade had not been established.” What does logic suggest?

JWCS is equally critical of the government’s efforts to prevent illegal trade: “The current management system of domestic ivory hanko trade is incapable of differentiating the hanko of legally obtained ivory from those of illegal sources in the retail market.”

In short, “sustainable use” in Japan will remain “loose use” as long as sievelike customs and poorly regulated retailers convey the message that, in Japan, commerce reigns supreme over conservation.

Where do the orangutans come in? Next column. Till then, careful of any luggage that may have shifted in flight. It could be a primate. Honest.