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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Namibia and Zimbabwe failed on Monday to convince a U.N. body that they should be allowed to export elephant ivory, while Swaziland lost a bid to sell rhino horn - moves they all argued would protect the animals rather than endanger them.
Member states of the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted overwhelmingly at a conference to reject the proposals to sell tusks and horns, whether they are seized from poachers or taken from animals that die naturally or have been put down by the state because they were, for instance, destroying crops.
"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, head of conservation group WWF's CITES delegation. "It could offer criminal syndicates new avenues to launder poached ivory."
A global ban on ivory sales was imposed in 1989 to curb a wave of poaching but, in one-off rulings, CITES allowed Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell stockpiles to Japan, and South Africa to sell to China and Japan in 2008.
A similar ban was applied to rhino horn in 1977, but poaching of both elephants and rhinos has soared in recent years to meet red-hot demand in newly affluent Asian economies such as China and Vietnam.
Ivory is prized for its decorative qualities while rhino horn is a key ingredient in traditional Asian medicines. There is also speculative demand from buyers betting that prices will skyrocket if rhinos are poached to extinction.
South Africa, home to most of the world's rhinos, has seen rhino killings leap from 13 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014, a number that fell only slightly last year.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of elephants have been slain, mostly in east and southern Africa.
Authorities in the West African nation of Benin on Monday arrested three traffickers carrying tusks weighing 12.3 kilograms (27.11 pounds) from three different elephants at the port of Cotonou, police said in a statement.
Namibia and cash-strapped Zimbabwe argue that the sales are needed to raise money for conservation, and that their rhino and elephant populations have been stable or growing, to the detriment of poor farmers.
Zimbabwe asked CITES for a green light to sell a 70-tonne ivory stockpile estimated to be worth $35 million. Swaziland, also poor, wanted to sell 330 kg (700 pounds) of rhino horn, worth an estimated $10 million, also to fund conservation efforts.
Other African nations such as Kenya are strongly opposed to any reopening of the ivory or horn trade on the grounds that it will stimulate demand and threaten their animals.
In the secret ballots, Namibia's proposal was defeated by 73 to 27, Zimbabwe's by 80 to 21, both far short of the two-thirds required to pass. Swaziland's was defeated by 100 to 26.
Rhino horn can be harvested from a sedated animal, as it grows back, although most poachers simply opt for a kill. To extract a whole ivory tusk, an elephant must be killed.
"Ivory belongs to the elephants and ivory is worth more on a live animal rather than a dead animal," Kenyan Environment Minister Judi Wakhungu told Reuters.
Kenya 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.
CITES recommended on Sunday that countries such as Japan with legal domestic ivory markets - which are not regulated by the convention - start closing them down because they are seen as contributing to poaching.
Also on Monday, CITES members voted to include the silky shark, three species of thresher sharks and nine species of devil rays in its "Appendix II" listing, which strictly controls trade so that species are not overharvested or threatened.
Devil rays, which resemble their bigger cousins, manta rays, are targeted for their gill plates, which are sold in China for use in a health tonic.
"Largely unregulated fishing is depleting devil ray populations and jeopardizes the significant potential of these animals for tourism," the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society said.
Additional reporting by Allegresse Sasse; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Sandra Maler