Should China be allowed to import ivory?

International ivory trading has been banned for nearly two decades now, a move that no doubt helped to protect elephants and (most) rhinos from extinction.

But even with the ban, problems with ivory trade still exist. For one thing, the ban has done little to reduce demand for ivory products, which creates a huge black market for illegal ivory, much of which comes from poached animals. For another, several African nations have now stockpiled huge amounts of ivory from animals that died of natural or legal causes, and they can't do much (if anything) with that ivory, even if the monies raised from its sale would go toward conservation efforts.

Both of those problems will be addressed this week by the United Nations, which must decide if it will allow China to participate in an upcoming, one-time sale of more than 100 tons of ivory from African governments' stockpiles. China is the world's biggest consumer of illegal ivory products. (The U.S. is the second-largest.)

Conservationists fear that if China is allowed to legally import ivory from this sale, it will create a mask for an even larger amount of black-market ivory smuggling, inspire poachers to shoot more elephants, and doom the species to extinction.

Others say that legal ivory sales have no correlation to illegal poaching and China has done a lot of work to curb illegal imports in recent years.

But as the Environmental Investigation Agency points out, China lost track of 121 tons of ivory between 1991 and 2002, the equivalent of 22,000 tusks. And as I wrote earlier this year, 23,000 elephants were illegally poached in 2006 alone. Those tusks are going somewhere, and it ain't Canada.

China has not been allowed to participate in any of the previous legal ivory sales that have taken place since the trading ban took effect. This year's sale of 108 tons by the governments of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe was approved last year, and would be the only sale allowed for the next nine years.