Caution: Elephant Hazard

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HARARE, Zimbabwe: In Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, healthy elephants look like millions in lost ivory sales. Not any more. As delegates burst into "God Bless Africa," the U.N. Convention on Trade in Endangered Species voted overwhelmingly to relax the seven-and-a-half year ban on ivory trade to allow the three countries a one-time sale of 59 tons of stockpiled elephant tusks to Japan. While Africa's elephants no longer teeter on the brink of extinction, environmental "ele-friends" warn that the vote may mark a return to the horrific pre-ban poaching levels that saw ivory hunters slaughtering nearly 70,000 African elephants each year. Officials in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, where 30 percent of Africa's estimated 580,000 elephants live, scoff that such an attitude reeks of Western "environmental colonialism." While they insist that the tusks to be sold are already stockpiled, any self-respecting elephant had better head for the hills once the poachers find out that ivory is being shipped once more.