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Bangkok (AFP) March 3, 2013
Global conservationists converged on Bangkok Sunday for the start of endangered species talks, as host Thailand was forced onto the defensive over the rampant smuggling of ivory through its territory.
The plight of elephants and rhinos -- threatened by poaching networks driven by insatiable demand for tusks and horn from Asian nations -- are set to dominate the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which lasts until March 14.
Thailand, seen as a hub for traffickers of all endangered species, is facing particular pressure over its ivory market.
Activists say criminals exploit a legal trade in Asian elephant tusks to sell illicit stocks of African ivory and conservation groups WWF and TRAFFIC have called on the Thai government to respond by outlawing the entire ivory trade.
"After years of failing to end this unfettered trade, Thailand should grab the spotlight and shut down these markets that are fuelling poaching of elephants in Africa," said Carlos Drews, director of WWF's global species programme.
In opening remarks to the conference, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said her country was working closely with foreign governments to curb the illicit trade and had tightened scrutiny of its ivory products.
"Elephants are very important for Thai culture. I must stress that no one cares more about the elephant than the Thai people," she said.
"Unfortunately, many have used Thailand as a transit country for the illegal international ivory trade," she added, stating her faith that "Thailand will be a strong ally" in the fight against the illicit business.
Since coming into force in 1975, CITES has placed some 35,000 species of animal and plants under its protection, controlling and monitoring their international trade.
The 178 countries who have signed up to the convention -- and must undertake measures to implement its decisions at home -- will also consider growing calls for the greater regulation of the shark fin trade.
Similar proposals to protect a number of shark species -- whose fins are prized in Asia -- have previously failed in the face of opposition from a group of Asian countries concerned about their fishing industries.
Humans kill about 100 million sharks each year, mostly for their fins, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and conservationists are warning that dozens of species are under threat.
"We are now the predators. Humans have mounted an unrelenting assault on sharks, and their numbers are crashing throughout the world's oceans," Elizabeth Wilson, manager of global shark conservation at Pew Charitable Trusts.
CITES, which on Sunday celebrates 40 years since its inception in 1973, is also looking to strengthen protection for multiple plant species, including Madagascar ebony and rosewood, from a host of countries.
CITES -- a handbook for wildlife protection
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which meets in Bangkok on Sunday, is the framework by which trade in animals and plants is regulated.
While it does not directly manage wildlife populations -- and has faced pressure from conservationists to get tougher to combat high levels of poaching -- it can act to ban the sale of wildlife and associated products when a species is threatened.
Here are some key facts about the convention and how it works:
-- CITES was adopted on March 3, 1973 in Washington and entered into force two years later.
-- Some 35,000 species have since been placed under CITES protection.
-- In Bangkok, 70 proposals by 55 countries will seek to improve the conservation and sustainable use of various species, from sharks, rhinos and elephants to Ecuador's vicuna (a cousin of the llama), freshwater turtles, frogs, and ornamental and medicinal plants.
-- CITES protection is not always enough to save a species in the face of habitat destruction and increasingly advanced poaching networks. The tiger was added to Annex I in 1975, but it has still faced "substantial population declines" even since the late 1990s, according to the 2011 International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List report.
-- The convention recognises that the trade in plant or animal species may be necessary both for local populations and for the conservation of the species, provided such trade is sustainable.
-- When threats to a specific species are scientifically proven, the secretariat or CITES member states can propose adding it into one of the Convention's three appendices.
Appendix I bans international trade in the species outright. It includes some 600 animals, from big cats to sea turtles, and around 300 plants, including varieties of orchid and mahogany.
Appendix II imposes strict controls over the trade of named species, requiring export permits, for example. Currently 4,500 animals and 29,000 plants are on this list, while several species of shark are tipped to be added at this meeting.
Annex III covers unilateral initiatives by member states aimed at protecting local species by imposing strict controls on exports. It covers some 260 species.
-- When a species is added to one of the appendices all member states must adopt legislation and other scientific, legal or customs-related measures, to ensure the protection requirements are respected.
-- Each decision of CITES must be adopted by a two-thirds majority of those present. A member state can call for a secret vote if it is supported by 10 others, but some members wants to reform the process in order to increase transparency.
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