THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Bickering African countries remained deadlocked Tuesday on whether to ease an 18-year international ban on ivory sales, with opponents warning it will increase the poaching threat in places where elephants have almost disappeared.
Southern African countries want to institute controlled sales of legally acquired ivory and have pledged to earmark the revenue for conservation to benefit their expanding elephant herds and the people who live close to them.
The dispute has consumed the meeting of the 171-member Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, the watchdog organization that outlawed the cross-border ivory trade in 1989 to halt the slaughter of elephants in Africa and Asia.
Three weeks of negotiations broke down late Monday after failing to bridge competing proposals to either reopen the trade or further restrict it.
"We were absolutely close to a solution," German mediator Jochen Flasbarth told the packed conference hall. "We didn't succeed."
Kenya, which had proposed reinforcing the ivory ban with a 20-year moratorium on discussing the issue, suggested one more try Tuesday and delegates headed back into closed-door meetings.
"Africa is huge and we all have different challenges," said Kenyan delegate Patrick Omondi. "We really need a practical way out."
Herds in southern Africa rebounded after elephants were declared in danger of extinction two decades ago. But the animals remain threatened in some west and central African states, which have been ravaged by civil wars and rampant exploitation of natural resources.
Several countries -- Cameroon, Nigeria and Congo -- have been implicated in a sharp rise in the illegal ivory trade over the last two years, said TRAFFIC, a nongovernment wildlife monitoring group. Sophisticated smuggling routes have been set up from Africa to Asia by organized Chinese gangs, the group said in a report to the conference.
Last week, a CITES body approved a one-time sale of 66 tons of ivory by South Africa, Namibia and Botswana that had been stockpiled from animals which died of natural causes since the ban was imposed.
The three countries, joined by Zimbabwe, asked CITES to increase the ivory sale by another 44 tons and to authorize quotas for annual sales, with profits going to conservation trust funds.
But Kenya and Mali, supported by 21 central and West African countries, called for a "rest period" on further sales, arguing that reviving the legal trade would encourage poachers.
Compromise proposals, backed by the U.S., called for increasing the one-time sale to as much as 220 tons, and then freezing the issue for nine years.
Conservation groups were likewise split on easing the trade ban.
Peter Pueschel, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said a moratorium on discussing the ivory trade issue would give African countries a chance to find a joint solution to the problem, while reopening the trade "will be a disaster for the elephants."
The World Wildlife Fund For Nature, however, said it opposes the moratorium because it feels countries should have the right to bring the issue up at meetings. The group also has no problem with increasing the size of the legal, one-time sale, saying countries should focus their energies instead on stopping illegal poaching.