By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Namibia and Zimbabwe failed on Monday to convince a U.N. body on Monday that they should be allowed to export ivory - something they had argued would protect rather than further endanger Africa's elephants.
Member countries of the U.N.'s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted overwhelmingly to reject the proposals to sell tusks seized from poachers and taken from animals that had died naturally or been put down by the state.
"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," said Ginette Hemley, the head of the CITES delegation for conservation group WWF.
"It could offer criminal syndicates new avenues to launder poached ivory, undermining law enforcement," she said.
A global ban on ivory sales was imposed in 1989 to stem a wave of poaching, but CITES allowed Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell stockpiles to Japan in 1999. They were joined by South Africa in 2008 in a sale to China and Japan.
Namibia and cash-strapped Zimbabwe had both argued that the sales were needed to raise money for conservation and that their populations have been stable or growing, triggering conflict with poor rural farmers.
Zimbabwe said it had a 70 tonne ivory stockpile estimated to be worth $35 million.
Other African nations, such as Kenya, are strongly opposed to any reopening of the ivory trade on the grounds that it will stimulate demand and threaten its own elephants.
In the secret ballots, Namibia's proposal lost 73 to 27, Zimbabwe's 80 to 21, both far short of the two-thirds required to pass.
"Ivory belongs to the elephants and ivory is worth more on a live animal rather than a dead animal," Kenya's environment minister, Judi Wakhungu, told Reuters.
Kenya, which also bans sports hunting, has for decades focused on wildlife-watching safaris and ecotourism as the main revenue streams from its big animals. In April it burnt 105 tonnes of ivory from 8,000 animals.
Tens of thousands of elephants have been poached in Africa the past decade to meet demand for ivory in newly affluent Asian economies, where it is prized for carvings and other decorative purposes.
CITES recommended on Sunday that countries with legal domestic ivory markets - which are not regulated by the convention as its remit is cross-border trade - start closing them down because they are seen as contributing to poaching.
Elephant populations have drastically declined in east and central Africa, with Tanzania estimated to have lost around 60 percent of its population of the animals in the past decade. But a number of southern African states - with notable exceptions such as Mozambique - have stable to growing elephant numbers.
The southern African kingdom of Swaziland has tabled a proposal to sell rhino horn but it is also unlikely to get the green light.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)