Conservationists have hit out at a bid by Tanzania to hold a one-off sale of its ivory stockpile and downgrade the level of protection for the country's elephants.

The East African country has formally applied to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to allow it to hold a sale of more than 100 tonnes of ivory to Japan and China.

tanzania ivory

Much of the ivory that has been poached has been smuggled to the Philippines

Tanzania also wants to downlist the protection of its elephants from the highest category to allow trade in elephant hunting trophies, raw hides and live animals.

The country says the proceeds from the sale would be used exclusively for elephant conservation, community conservation and development programmes within or next to the animal's range in Tanzania.

But environmentalists have labelled the proposal "ludicrous", warning it comes at a time when elephant poaching is escalating and evidence suggests previous one-off sales have driven further hunting and the illegal trade in ivory.

The Environmental Investigation Agency's (EIA) executive director Mary Rice said: "The very system Cites uses to permit so-called one-off auctions is profoundly flawed and, we believe, a major driver of poaching and the illegal international trade in ivory.

"It's ludicrous for Tanzania to even consider applying for permission to cash in on its stockpile - dumping more than 100 tonnes of ivory onto the market will only serve to further confuse consumers as to the legal status of ivory, stimulating fresh demand, spurring the black market and leading to more poaching."

Four African countries were given permission to sell their legally-held stocks of ivory in 2008, which conservationists argue stimulated the market and provided a cover for traders to offload illegal stocks.

Tanzania last submitted proposals to Cites to sell its stock pile of ivory in March 2010, a move which was rejected, but is applying again to a meeting next March of countries signed up to the convention for the go-ahead for the sale.

The EIA claimed that Tanzania had a flourishing trade in illegal ivory, with authorities unable or unwilling to control poaching and trafficking.

Ms Rice urged countries to firmly veto all proposals for ivory sales to prevent the 1989 ban on the international trade in the product being undermined.

"They can start by emphatically rejecting Tanzania's proposal in March, sending out an unequivocal message that all ivory is blood ivory," she urged.

Heather Sohl, senior species policy officer at WWF-UK said: "In principle, we are not in favour of any further international ivory trade unless and until the data make it clear beyond doubt that such trade will not encourage poaching.

"Any decision to downlist a species would need to be based on sound science, and consider benefits to the conservation of the species or its habitat, as well as the benefits for local communities who live in proximity to that species."

In the summer, Gabon was hailed by wildlife groups when it burned its stockpile of ivory in a move designed to show its commitment to stamping out elephant poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.

Paul Todd, International Fund for Animal Welfare's director for international policy and planning, said: "IFAW was disappointed by Tanzania's proposal to sell its ivory stockpile.

"Proposals such as this distract from the most urgent need which is to map out a strategy for the long-term protection of elephants from poaching and illegal trade.

"The bottom line is that ivory trade should not be allowed while elephants are still being killed for their ivory."