The Hague (AFP) June 03, 2007
Representatives from 171 nations, monitored by a small army of wildlife advocates, began debating dozens of sharply contested measures Sunday on how best to regulate the global trade in wildlife. "You are making policy for the biodiversity of the future," Gerda Verburg, chairwoman and Dutch agriculture and nature minister, told some 2,500 delegates from the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as CITES.
Decimated by over-exploitation and smuggling, hundreds of endangered species ranging from orchids to elephants will get a hearing during the two-week gathering in The Hague.
Orangutans sold on the black market as exotic pets, wild tiger parts ground up into Chinese medicines, sharks scalped to make soup, rare hardwoods hewn into designer coffee tables -- the global appetite for wild flora and fauna is seemingly inexhaustible.
The world's only international body with the power to slap moratoriums on the sale of plants and animals is also considering a controversial shift in "strategic vision" that would take the impact on human communities into account.
During its first meeting in three years, CITES will vote on measures that could determine the survival of several species of gazelle and shark, Asian tigers, Ugandan leopards, great apes, and a handful of hardwood trees in Latin America.
In some cases, safeguards that helped plants and animals recover from near extinction may be eased or removed. Among the most contested measures is a proposal for a 20-year ban of ivory trade favoured by 20 African nations, led by Kenya and Mali.
Even before the opening ceremony, the Standing Committee of CITES authorised on Saturday the sale of 60 tonnes of African ivory to Japan, a decision condemned by some conservation groups as an encouragement to poaching.
Legal and illegal trade in wild fauna and flora generates tens of billions of dollars (euros) in revenue every year, even after commercial fishing and the timber industry are set aside.
In the coming days delegates will debate the wisdom of seeking a middle ground between safeguarding wildlife and the safeguarding the livelihood of local populations who exploit it.
Decisions on extending trade protection to a species "should take into account potential impacts on the livelihood of the poor," CITES Secretary General Williem Wijnstekers said at the opening ceremony.
"These changes are long overdue. It is one of the reasons we are failing to be effective," said Juan Carlos Vasquez, Legal Officer for CITES. The disproportionate focus on big mammals -- what Vasquez calls "charismatic species" -- leads to "choices that are more emotional than rational," he said.
But some non-governmental conservation groups argue that the shift would water down the convention's original mission.
It "may actually weaken or even contradict the principle role and primary goal of the convention, which is the protection against over-exploitation through international trade," said Lynn Levine of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
CITES is also seeking to play a larger role in protecting species exploited in the commercial fisheries and timber industries, "long considered off-limits to the Convention," Wijnskekers said.
Poaching and over-exploitation are not the only threat to endangered species. Shrinking habitats, pollution and more recently global warming have all played a role.
CITES came into force in 1975, and currently covers almost 33,000 species, more than 80 percent of them in the plant kingdom.
Animals and plants can be recommended by individual countries for inclusion in one of the three appendices depending on the level of protection needed. Approval requires a two-thirds majority.
The sawtooth shark, whose numbers have been decimated by demand for its much-prized fins, for example, stands a good chance of being included in "Appendix I" along side some 530 other animals already protected by total or near-total bans, conservation groups say.
Two other species of the fearsome ocean predator -- the porbeagle shark and the spiny dogfish -- have been nominated for membership in the less restrictive "Appendix II" category, which requires scientific certification and certification of origin to be traded.
Appendix III applies to species that are protected within the borders of one or more countries.
earlier related report
An abandoned wreck of a boat off China's southern coast last month exposed its breadth: on board, dying in the baking sun, were more than 5,000 lizards, tortoises and pangolins, not to mention 21 bear paws.
Once ashore they would likely have ended up as food or used in traditional medicines.
It is not just small animals. Tigers are dying out in India and Nepal. At least 1,000 orangutans are trafficked out of Indonesia's Kalimantan province alone every year. Bears are hunted for their bile, rhinos for their horn.
"People see it as quick cash with low risk," said Petch Manopawitr, deputy director of Thailand's Wildlife Conservation Society.
Smuggling is at the centre of a three-yearly conference starting Sunday in The Hague under the auspices of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
China has long been seen as a magnet for wildlife smuggling because of its traditional medicines and taste for exotic animals.
"Wildlife is basically defenceless as there's no animal protection law in China," said Qin Xiaona, head of the Capital Animal Care Association group.
"Some nouveau riche want to eat what ordinary people can't eat in order to show off their wealth."
Experts reckon up to a tonne of pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are smuggled over the Thai-Laos border every month, many for use in medicines.
"The biggest demand comes from China," said Chairul Saleh of welfare group WWF. "They don't only want the scales but also the meat for consumption."
Tiger bones have been used to treat rheumatism and arthritis and the penis is said to increase male potency.
Bear bile is used for liver complaints and fatigue, deer musk for treatment of strokes, rhino horn against inflammation. Pangolins have reputed medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities.
Animal pelts -- bears, tigers, Tibetan antelopes -- are also prized, while the rhino horn is used to make dagger handles in Arab nations, fetching up to 14,000 dollars on the black market.
Thai police commander Thanayod Kengkasikij said a crackdown simply ups the allure, noting that "the increasing value (of the animals) is attracting more criminals."
Asep Rahmat Purnama, the executive director of wildlife watchdog ProFauna, estimated the trade in Indonesia as worth a billion dollars a year.
In India, which has 60 percent of the world's remaining tiger population, conservation efforts have been hampered by poachers seeking the pelt -- which can sell for up to 16,000 dollars -- claws and bones.
Officials surveying rare Royal Bengal tigers say their population may have declined as much as 50 percent from the 3,700 estimated in 2002.
In Taiwan, a poacher can hope to sell a bear for 4,500 dollars.
In Malaysia, said Chris Shepherd of the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, the most sought-after creatures are water turtles, tortoises, many species of snake, pangolins, the Sumatran rhino, tiger and samba deer.
He said crime syndicates were becoming increasingly involved.
The effect is to strip some countries of native wildlife -- only 50 to 150 tigers survive in the wild in Vietnam, according to official and environmental agencies.
In Thailand, the focus is shifting to exotic pets such as wild birds and rare reptiles because species such as tigers and pangolins are disappearing, said Tassanee Vejpongsa, of US-based group WildAid.
"We do believe that the number of animal species in Thailand has gone down to the point it can't really be a supplier any more," Tassanee told AFP.
Similarly in Cambodia. "We are not seeing tigers and leopards in the trade because they have been almost wiped out," said Nick Marx, also of WildAid.
But it remains a lucrative business. "If they weren't making a lot of money they wouldn't be doing it."
Another problem cited by officials and groups in nations such as Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Thailand is that legislation is often undermined by weak enforcement or local corruption.
"There is an indication of the involvement of customs or other officials in wildlife trafficking, especially for bigger animals such as orangutans," said Indonesia's Purnama.
After all, he said, when creatures like that are being smuggled out "it is impossible not to detect them before air transport."
earlier related report
An agreement over the sale of ivory stocks from Botswana (20 tonnes), Namibia (10) and South Africa (30) was reached in 2002 but had to be formally approved by the CITES permanent council.
The council required that a large database be set up on poaching and elephant populations to measure the relationship between such exceptional ivory sales and the behaviour of poachers.
CITES banned the international ivory trade in 1989, but since 1997 has authorised Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe -- where it judges the elephant populations to be strong -- to carry out occasional sales of between 10 and 50 tonnes each time.
These ivory stocks come from elephants who died of natural causes or were killed when they became violent and destroyed crops or houses, or attacked people, CITES official John Sellar explained to reporters here on Saturday.
He said the Japan sale would be carried out by auction and "take at least a couple of months", without saying how much the countries providing the ivory could expect to gain.
Namibia, Botswana and South Africa have to reinvest the money into the management of animal populations and anti-poaching programmes.
China was also a candidate to buy the ivory but was rejected as CITES believed the risks of it entering the black market were too great.
However, Peter Pueschel from the The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) condemned the sale to Japan, saying a report by his organisation had found "all sorts of loopholes" in that country's ivory controls.
"I can't believe they can ignore all these facts," he said, adding: "Of course there's an illegal ivory trade in Japan... lately they caught three tons of ivory on a boat."
He warned: "It will increase poaching in Africa, smuggling from Africa to Japan but also in other parts of the world... its a signal that ivory trade is acceptable."
CITES was signed in 1973 by 80 countries and today counts 171 signatories. It offers varying degrees of protection for nearly 33,000 species, whether traded as live specimens, fur coats, food products, raw timber, musical instruments or traditional medicines.
Source: Agence France-Presse
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