NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ In a major setback Saturday, Japan lost its bid to win international approval for limited trade of the grey whale.

In a secret ballot, 53 countries attending the U.N. conference on trade in endangered species voted against a proposal that would have allowed controlled trade of the whale. Forty countries voted in favor of the plan and nine abstained.

The decision still could be overturned when the measure goes before a plenary session of the 11th conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Some 2,000 delegates representing 151 countries are attending the 10-day forum in the Kenyan capital.

Despite the chance of a reversal, supporters of a continued total ban on any trade in grey whale products were elated by Saturday's vote.

``This is a big victory for nature,'' said Kurt Oddekalv, president of the Norwegian Environmental Organization.

Oddekalv predicted that three other proposals _ two from Japan and one from Norway _ to permit trade in the minke whale would be voted down ``because delegates act in blocs.''

Japan and Norway want approval for limited commercial fishing of minke whales in areas of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Currently, such fishing is outlawed.

In additional action on Friday:

_ CITES officials turned down a request by Kenya to allow controlled trade of the pancake tortoise. Only 300 such tortoises are believed to exist in the East African nation.

_ Citing lack of support from delegates, officials asked the United States to withdraw its bid to place allow only limited trade in the bottlenose dolphin.

_ A ban on all trade in ten medicinal plants was approved. ``We really have to concentrate on the (plants) that are endangered and need help,'' said Bertrand Von Arx, head of the CITES committee on plants.

_ Uganda and Malawi backed a continuation of Tanzania's annual export quota of 1,600 Nile crocodiles.