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Conference on Endangered Species Opens in Bangkok  - 2004-10-01

The great white shark, African rhinos and the American bald eagle are among the animals and fauna that will take center stage at an international conference on regulating trade in endangered species that opens Saturday.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, is 29-years-old, and it meets every two years. More than 2,500 participants are expected for Saturday's opening ceremonies of this latest meeting.

More than 50 proposals aimed at regulating the global trade in endangered species and plants will be debated during two weeks of discussion.

At present, the list of species in the convention's three appendices runs to more than 33,000. Many are exotic species, but Willem Wijnstekers, CITES secretary general, says attention also needs to be paid to commercial species that may be under threat from over-exploitation.

"There are many species today, which are economically very important for many countries, such as tropical timber, [and] commercial fish species that can benefit from CITES involvement to a large extent," said Willem Wijnstekers. "And there are proposals before this meeting to include such species."

Australia has joined with Madagascar in calling for improved protection for the great white shark from trophy hunters, while Indonesia is seeking protection from loggers for its Ramin Tree.

Some states are seeking reduced protection. Japan wants to renew fishing of the minke whale, while Swaziland is seeking to export white rhinos. The United States will argue for a lowering in the level of protection for the bald eagle, the American symbol, saying populations have recovered in recent decades.

Non-governmental organizations are critical of CITES, saying the convention lacks the necessary "teeth" to enforce its calls for compliance and controls.

Steven Galster, executive director of the animal protection group WildAid, accused those countries seeking reduced controls of being focused only on short-term returns.

"This is a meeting about money," said Steven Galster. "People can't forget that. It's what can and can't be traded, in terms of Mother Nature, and that's why it's really important that somebody put some teeth into CITES, before it disintegrates as a treaty."

At the end of two weeks of debates, the 166 member governments will determine, which of the more than 50 proposals have support. A two-thirds majority is required for a resolution to pass.