TOKYO -- Should South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe -- which unlike other African nations have zealously enforced wildlife conservation laws, battled heavily armed poaching gangs and, as a result, boast flourishing herds of elephants -- be allowed to resume a limited trade in elephant parts?
Will Japanese gourmets of raw fish see bluefin tuna, prized as a $78-a-sliver delicacy here, disappear from sushi bars because of a proposed ban on trade in the species, whose numbers in the Atlantic have declined dangerously over the past decade?
And what about the Asiatic slipper orchid? Can black-market trade in the genus be brought under control before the delicate blossom disappears forever from its wild habitats in India and Southeast Asia?
The fate of thousands of species of wild animals and plants will be hotly debated by delegates from governments worldwide as the eighth triennial conference of the 112-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, got under way yesterday in the ancient Japanese imperial city of Kyoto.
The purpose of the certain-to-be fractious conference, which will include representatives of environmental and commercial groups, is to consider 100 proposed changes in its 1973 international treaty, whose appendixes establish varying levels of protection for about 3,000 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants.
Some of the proposed changes are so hotly disputed that some environmental groups believe that unless they are resolved, CITES itself will become an endangered species, with angry governments signing off the treaty.
Among the thorniest issues confronting the conference:
* Six southern African nations -- South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia -- are pushing to allow restricted trade in hides and skins. The two-year ban on ivory trade would remain in effect.
Nonetheless, environmentalists sharply oppose the request to relax even the ban on hides, arguing that trade in any elephant parts would inevitably bolster the sharply reduced illicit trade in ivory.
"If such a resolution is passed, desperate poachers would again look to elephants as a way to make quick money," said Richard Leakey, director of Kenya's Wildlife Service.
* Environmentalists want the bluefin tuna elevated to the highest level of protection, saying populations of the fish -- which can grow to 1,500 pounds -- have dropped to a 10th of the numbers swimming the Atlantic two decades ago.
Japan, whose taste for the bluefin encouraged overfishing of the species, argues that there is no scientific evidence showing that the bluefin is endangered.
* Other issues expected to generate angry debate are a proposed moratorium on several dozen species of tropical birds, and increased regulation of international sales of bear claws, gall bladders and other parts, which have long been used in traditional Asian medicines.
Overhunting of bears for the Asian market has put many species in immediate danger of extinction, according to environmental groups.