Thirty-seven wild baby elephants may be spared export to Chinese zoos after a vote by the organization that controls the trade in wild animals this weekend.

The 183 members of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) voted on Sunday, on a proposal to ban the live trade in African elephants. By a two thirds majority, they decided that ‘appropriate and acceptable destinations’ for African elephants should be in situ conservation alone.

“This means that African elephants should only be moved between elephant-suitable habitats, in places where elephants traditionally roam,” says David Barritt, chief campaigner for the international animal welfare organization Network for Animals (NFA). “Theoretically, this should rule out zoos anywhere in the world. What is not clear is if this ruling will be honored by countries like Zimbabwe, which has 37 wild baby elephants being held in pens at the Hwange National Park, waiting for export to Chinese and Pakistani zoos.”

The capture of the babies caused outrage among conservationists because it is known to be intrinsically cruel; elephant calves are dependent on their mothers for up to ten years, even sometimes suckling that long and should never be removed from a family group.

“The vote is certainly a step in the right direction,” said Barritt, “but a lot of questions are still unanswered, such as when such a ban will be implemented and what measures will be taken to enforce it.”

Barritt said the clock is ticking if the elephants are to be returned to the wild. “Most have been held in pens since December last year. If they are returned to the wild now, it is by no means certain that elephant herds will accept them, but it’s certainly a better option then sending them to spend the rest of their lives in cages.”