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Japan said nothing in the runup to the 12th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the 160-nation forum that met in Chile last week to reconsider, among other things, the 13-year-old ban on ivory sales. It didn’t have to, really. Everyone knows that Japan is by far the largest market for the beautiful yellow-white substance, the stuff of elephants’ tusks, mainly because of its conviction that “hanko,” or personal seals, should be made of ivory rather than plastic. Without an easing of restrictions, the Japanese ivory business — and a centuries-old tradition of craftsmanship — could not last much longer. It therefore obviously suits this country that the contentious debate over the ivory ban ended the way it did, with a vote that, in principle, opens the door to a resumption of trade.

For many conservationists, including the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society, the hot-button questions are these: Why do Japanese value their ivory hanko over elephants’ very survival? How can a country that aspires to progressive environmental thinking, even leadership (“Kyoto” is now shorthand for the antiglobal warming movement) take such seemingly regressive stances when it comes to whales, say, or elephants?

The answers to these two questions are that they don’t and it doesn’t. Or at least not necessarily. As with much else in the environmental arena, the issues are not that simple. In Santiago last week, the debate was not about whether markets and profits and cultural traditions are more important than elephants’ survival — no one argued that they are — but about whether a balance can feasibly be struck, satisfying a legitimate consumer demand and addressing local African farmers’ grievances without jeopardizing a remarkable species.

Both sides think the answer is obvious, which is why discussion was so heated. But the final vote — to let South Africa, Botswana and Namibia hold one-time sales of 30, 20 and 10 tons respectively from existing ivory stockpiles — represented a cautious, deeply considered “maybe.” Only time will tell whether that was a mistake.

History favors the arguments of the conservationists. The 1989 worldwide ivory ban was imposed after a decade-long rise in poaching that saw the African elephant population drop from 1.3 million to 600,000. Kenya alone lost nearly 80 percent of its elephants. In the 13 years since, poaching has diminished and elephant numbers, after an initial continuing drop, have stabilized at around the 1989 level. Conservationists and some African governments, notably Kenya, fear that even a partial easing of trade restrictions will trigger a resurgence of poaching and poaching-related violence, which they say happened after Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were allowed to make one-time stockpile sales to Japan in 1997. Even China, another huge ivory consumer, came out this month against easing the ban, saying that after 1997 the country experienced an uncontrollable upsurge in illegal shipments via Japan.

Trade proponents, however, put their faith in science and a bristling hedge of requirements and restrictions to offset such pessimism. If the door to trade was opened in Santiago, it was only a crack. The three countries involved are not permitted to sell so much as a single tusk until May 2004. At that time they can make one-time sales only, since a request to reinstate annual sales quotas was denied. Requests by Zimbabwe and Zambia for even the one-time permit were denied. Two long-term, computer-based monitoring systems are promised, one to measure poaching and elephant-population trends in Africa and Asia and one to track illegal trade. Buyer nations will find their regulation systems subject to scrutiny, and trade can be stopped at any time if CITES finds either an exporting or an importing country in contravention of the rules. Supposedly, the ban will also be reinstated if it is found that trade has caused a resumption in poaching.

It sounds fail-safe, though that doesn’t mean it is. Skeptics point out that similar safeguards were promised in 1997; not all materialized. But for the first time, even some conservation groups, including the World Wide Fund for Nature, have expressed optimism about the philosophy of “sustainable use” underlying the Santiago vote. The argument is that, sufficiently policed, the limited-trade approach has something for everyone. Money will flow back to tourist-oriented conservation ventures in Africa and to the local farmers whose crops are routinely trampled by burgeoning elephant herds. Herd populations will be strictly monitored. And ivory will flow in adequate but not unseemly amounts to places such as Japan, where-like it or not-it remains greatly prized.

Like CITES, we think it is worth a try.

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