The Bush administration says it plans to come to the rescue of the African elephant, whose numbers are being threatened by ivory hunters.

Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan said Wednesday he has told U.S. representatives to an international conference next October to push for increased protection of the elephant.The United States at the meeting will urge that the African elephant be placed in a more protected classification under the international endangered species treaty, thereby prohibiting any of the 101 treaty nations from engaging in the commercial trading of ivory.

The U.S. decision met immediate praise from several conservation and animal protection organizations that for some time have wanted the United States to take a more direct interest in protecting the African elephant.

"The United States is by far the most influential member to come out in favor of the proposal. This should carry a lot of weight," said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, which earlier this year petitioned the Interior Department to take action to protect the elephant.

Susan Lieberman, associate director of wildlife and environment for the Humane Society of America, said U.S. leadership in ending the worldwide ivory trade "is critical" to protecting the African elephant.

"No trinket is worth the death of an elephant and the extinction of a species," she said.

Since 1978, the number of African elephants found in 34 countries has declined from 1.5 million to as few as 400,000, according to the government and private groups. The number continues to decline at a rate of 8 percent a year, largely at the hands of ivory-seeking poachers, they say.

*****

(Additional information)

Kenya will seek ban on ivory trade

Kenya announced Thursday it will seek an international ban on trade in ivory in an effort to halt an illegal slaughter that threatens to wipe out Africa's elephants in 10 years.

"The policing of the elephants' survival is not easy, but it will be more practical if any ivory trade is banned," N. Katana Ngala, minister of tourism and wildlife, said at a news conference.

A dramatic increase in elephant poaching, spurred by record world prices for ivory, has reduced Africa's elephant population by half since the early 1970s, experts say. Ivory sells for about $91 a pound, and an average tusk weighs 11 pounds.

Conservationists believe there are about 750,000 elephants left on the continent. They say poachers are killing about 75,000 of the mammals a year. If the slaughter continues at that rate, the population could be wiped out by the year 2000.