By Tanisha Heiberg
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The United Nations on Sunday called for the shutdown of all legal domestic ivory markets as it looks to combat poaching and put pressure on countries that continue to trade in elephant tusks.
Member states of the U.N.'s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES, agreed on a resolution that calls for legislative, regulatory and enforcement measures to be taken to close legal domestic ivory markets around the world.
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"Today saw a historic moment toward tackling the illegal ivory trade that is killing 20,000 to 30,000 African elephants each year," said WWF-UK chief advisor on species, Heather Sohl.
Legal ivory markets, such as those in China and Japan, are often accused of fuelling elephant poaching because illegal ivory is sometimes sold through them.
"When there are legal markets for ivory it creates an opportunity for laundering of ivory into the country," said Wildlife Conservation Society vice president of international policy and head of delegation, Sue Lieberman.
Elephant numbers have continued to decline as poaching surges, with Africa's elephant population falling around 20 percent between 2006 and 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said in a report.
"There's a crisis right now - ivory poaching and trafficking are really out of control and something has to be done to crackdown on trafficking," Lieberman said.
Despite applause during the announcement of the resolution, some have criticized the decision, saying that prohibiting the sale of legal ivory will not curb the illegal trade.
"In the history of mankind there is not one record of any prohibition action being a success. Most certainly any attempt to impose prohibition on the sale of ivory and rhino horn will fail," said Ron Thomson of non-profit organization the True Green Alliance.
The CITES resolution is not legally binding but can merely put pressure on countries to close their ivory trade because the convention only regulates international trade and not domestic trade.
"It becomes an issue of political will and puts pressure on countries to take action on the domestic ivory market. It is significant that they have made this statement," said Lieberman.
(Reporting by Tanisha Heiberg; Editing by Andrew Bolton)