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Photograph: EPA/PAUL ZINKEN

The United States and 29 African countries on Monday pushed for a large-scale ban on the domestic ivory trade in an attempt to stop the dramatic decline of Africa's elephant populations.

The proposal was debated at the largest meeting so far of the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which brought together representatives of more than 180 countries in Johannesburg.

The two-week conference, which opened Saturday, will consider changes to the controls on about 500 animal and plant species in an attempt to combat illegal trade and to improve the sustainability of legal trade.

International ivory trading has been banned since 1990, but the ban does not concern domestic trade, the control of which depends on each country.

Domestically sold ivory is supposed to have been acquired legally, but the controls are usually insufficient, said Peter LaFontaine from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

"Domestic ivory trade often acts as a loophole" for international ivory smugglers using it as a laundering mechanism, said Satyen Sinha, a consultant for IFAW.

Large domestic ivory markets include Japan, Vietnam, Congo, Angola, Nigeria and Egypt, according to Tom Milliken from the organization Traffic, which monitors ivory trade flows.

In the US, a 2008 survey found more than 24,000 ivory items for sale in 16 towns or cities. The US tightened controls on its internal ivory market in July.

European countries including Germany, France and Belgium also have significant markets of ivory antiquities, IFAW experts said, thanks to historical imports.

Britain imported 39,000 tons of ivory between 1860 and 1910, according to Milliken, although it is not clear how much of this remains on the domestic market.

Banning domestic trade "would send a strong signal to the international community" at a time when dramatic reports are emerging about the decline of Africa’s elephant populations, Sinha said.

The European Union, however, wants to continue allowing the trade of ivory antiquities within its internal market.

"We agree that the domestic market should be looked at, but only if it has a link with international trade," said Gael de Rotalier, team leader for the EU at the CITES conference.

Germany exercises strict controls over its ivory market, said Gerhard Adams from the German Environment Ministry. "We see the proposal [of closing domestic markets] as important for countries where the markets are not in order," he said.

The closure of domestic markets is also opposed by some eastern and southern African countries with relatively large elephant populations. Namibia and Zimbabwe even want to resume ivory trade on the international market.

Some EU representatives thought it possible that the proposal to ban domestic ivory trade could be toned down before eventually being adopted.

The debate on the domestic trade ban followed a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that said Africa’s elephant population had dropped by 111,000 to 415,000 individuals since 2006.

The drop is largely due to an surge in poaching.

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