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Foreign tourists in safari riverboats observe elephants along the Chobe river bank near Botswana's northern border where Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia meet, March 4, 2005. REUTERS/Peter Apps/File Photo

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By Ed Cropley

GABORONE (Reuters) - Botswana, home to the world's largest elephant population, will break ranks with its southern African neighbours and not support bids at an upcoming U.N. conference to allow sales of ivory, its president says.

Trade in ivory will take centre stage at the meeting of the U.N.'s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Johannesburg September 24 to October 5.

South Africa Environment Minister Edna Molewa said on Tuesday the Southern African Development Community would take a united stand and support Namibian and Zimbabwean proposals to be allowed to sell ivory, a coveted commodity used for carving and jewellery.

But Botswana President Ian Khama has told Reuters his nation will not support loosening restrictions on the trade.

"We’re opposed to that ... We need to keep elephants on Appendix I so that there’s no trade in ivory," he said in an interview. Animals listed on CITES' Appendix I are afforded the highest level of protection and global trade in products derived from them is prohibited.

Botswana will be joining Kenya and other African nations seeking to snuff the trade out completely.

Southern Africa's elephant populations - with notable exceptions such as Mozambique - have grown or stabilised, in contrast to the rest of the continent, where the animals are being depleted by poachers to feed an illicit market with the bulk of the demand from Asia.

"We shouldn’t think that because we are doing well we should be selfish," Khama said.

Opponents are concerned that if CITES allows ivory to be traded, even from stockpiles and as a one-off, it would send a signal that it is socially acceptable, which could spur demand and further poaching.

"We are on this continent and if we support an act or a view that may see us have some temporary benefit but yet it encourages the illegal trade, it means other countries that are struggling with their populations are going to suffer," Khama said.

"It means other countries that are struggling with their populations are going to suffer, and one day if their animals become extinct, and we still have viable populations, all the guns will now be focused on us," he said.

Botswana, a sparsely-populated, arid and land-locked nation, has around a third of Africa's elephants - so it punches above its weight when it comes to big-animal diplomacy.

Botswana's elephant numbers fluctuate between 140,000 and 200,000, depending on the season as the animals move back and forth across borders. Sandwiched between Namibia and Zimbabwe, many of its elephants cross into their territories.

The global ban on trade in ivory products - which does not apply to domestic markets - was imposed in 1989 in response to a wave of poaching. One-off auctions from southern African stockpiles have since been held in 1999 and 2008.

(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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