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CITES Meeting Will Determine Future for Many Species - 2004-09-30

The future of some of the world's most exotic animals, such as the elephant, lion, whale and dolphin, is coming under focus as delegates gather in Thailand for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES. During the meeting, which opens Saturday, October 2, environmentalists will push for tighter restrictions on the trade of many species but that they will face powerful opposition. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, is the largest wildlife conservation agreement in the world.

Since it came into being nearly 30 years ago, it is has helped preserve scores of endangered species of animals and plants by restricting international trade in them and their by-products.

During the two-week CITES meeting in the Thai capital, delegates will debate tightening trade restrictions on dozens of species. Hundreds of trade lobbyists are also participating, adding to the debate.

Ronald Ornestein, a member of Humane Society International and an expert on the CITES treaty, says that because governments answer to a variety of constituencies, politics plays a big role in the convention.

"The most important thing that we will be looking for is the overall pattern, whether or not this is going to be a trend toward better and better protection for wildlife, or whether the forces who are trying to have more and more trade will seize the high ground," he said.

One of the most heated debates is expected to be over whaling. Japan, Norway and Iceland want to resume commercial hunting of the minke whale, saying the species is plentiful and it is part of their traditions. Conservationists bristle over the proposal, saying that this and virtually all whale species are severely threatened.

The 15-year-old ban on the ivory trade also is expected to come under fire.

Namibia is asking for permission to sell two tons of ivory a year from elephants culled from herds in its parks. Many parks in southern Africa have too many elephants, which are destroying grazing ranges and threatening other species.

But conservationists such as Shelley Petch of the Born Free Foundation oppose the proposal. She said, "Between 1979 and 1989 the African elephant population declined by 50 percent from 1.3 million to around 600 thousand and declined almost entirely as a result of illegal poaching for ivory."

Ms. Petch says that despite the ban, 95 tons of ivory were seized in the past five years, representing the deaths of 15,000 elephants.

East and West African nations, where elephant populations remain dangerously low, want to maintain the complete ban. They argue that allowing even limited ivory sales will provide a market that will encourage poaching everywhere.

Among the new species being proposed for protection is the great white shark, which has reportedly declined by up to 50 percent.

Another is the humphead wrasse, a large coral reef fish that is a delicacy in East Asia. Schools of the fish are a popular attraction for scuba-diving tourists in tropical waters.

Linda Paul of the Earthtrust Foundation notes that the humphead wrasse fetches $180 a kilogram but its market, of about $180 million, is small.

"This fish is far more valuable to countries such as Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations, to the ecotourism business, than it is to the live fish trade for luxury Asian markets," she said.

The Irrawaddy dolphin, a rare, light-skinned mammal found only in a few coastal areas and rivers in Southeast Asia, is being proposed because it is in demand for aquariums around the world. And there are proposals to add new groups of turtles to the CITES lists, as well as certain species of trees (ramin and agarwood) that are illegally logged.

CITES expert professor Ornestein acknowledges that it is difficult to control trade in exotic species as long as the demand for them continues among wealthy populations.

"There are two ways to deal with that and they are difficult, no question," he said. "One is public education. Another is providing alternatives."

He notes that education campaigns in Western countries virtually eliminated demand for ivory 10 years ago. And he says that efforts are under way in China to find substitutes for products used in traditional medicines, such as powdered horns from the rhinoceros, another threatened species.

Professor Ornestein says that restricting trade in exotic species also encourages the people living with the animals and plants to use them for something else, such as ecotourism. And it eliminates the profits of smugglers and middlemen, who make the bulk of the money from the trade.