SRI LANKA-Different approaches to protecting elephants are set to dominate the debate at a key conservation conference starting in Geneva today.

Delegates from more than 180 countries are gathering for the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Some African nations are again pushing to reopen the trade in ivory.

However others are seeking the highest possible protections for all of Africa’s elephants.

The Cites meeting, held every three years, will discuss a record 56 proposals submitted by governments to the Conference of the Parties, known as COP18.

The COP was due to be held in Sri Lanka earlier this year but was moved to Switzerland in the wake of the bomb attacks at Easter.

Key among the items on the agenda will be competing ideas on how to protect African elephants, which have seen a huge decline in numbers due to poaching over the past 20 years.

A study published in 2016 estimated that 30-40,000 of the giant creatures were killed by poachers every year with roughly 400,000 left in total. In many parts of Africa, elephants are protected under Cites Appendix I, which means that trade is only permitted under exceptional circumstances.

At this meeting, Zambia is seeking to have its elephants downlisted to Appendix II. This would allow a commercial trade in registered raw ivory with approved trading partners. Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe are also proposing that ivory from elephants in their region be traded.

On the other end of the scale, a number of countries including Kenya, Nigeria and Gabon are proposing that all elephants in Africa be listed as Appendix I, the highest form of protection available to Cites.

“The elephant is in the centre of the debate once again,” said Vera Weber from the Franz Weber Foundation, which campaigns to protect endangered species.