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Global Conference Seeks to Boost Wildlife Protection

Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is seen walking on stage before opening the CITES meeting in Bangkok March 3, 2013.
Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is seen walking on stage before opening the CITES meeting in Bangkok March 3, 2013.
An international conference in Thailand is seeking to curb the illegal trade in wildlife, especially rhino horn and ivory, as thousands of African elephants are being slaughtered each year. The forum comes amid ever growing calls for greater political will from governments to stem the multimillion dollar trade.

The two week meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which opened Sunday, is facing debate over 70 proposals to boost global protection for wildlife and flora.

These include the conservation and sustainable use of marine species, especially several types of shark, along with timber, freshwater turtles, frogs, crocodiles, and the long haired vicuna population of Ecuador.

Several shark species that are under threat are being listed for protection. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says up to 100 million sharks are killed each year, largely for their fins.

Added protection is also being sought for polar bears, now facing threats from climate change and killing by hunters.

But the rising toll in the illegal killing of the African elephant and rhinos to meet demand in Asian markets has led activists and governments to intensify calls for action.

Adam Roberts, a member of a global coalition - the Species Survival Network - and a U.S.-based animal conservation group, says the current conference in Thailand must address what he says is the “precipitous” decline in animal species.

“When we look at the state of wildlife conservation around the world today and we realize that there are some 21,000 white rhinos left in Africa and 35-hundred tigers left in Asia today; we’d better act fast in the next two weeks to prevent the precipitous decline that so many of these wild animals and plants face.”

Thailand is a key transit country for the illegal ivory trade. In the opening address to the conference, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said her country will tighten local laws in a bid to end the ivory trade.

In Africa, CITES says armed groups in northern Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo are involved in the large-scale slaughter of elephants.

With outlook grim, greater will needed

John Scanlon, secretary-general of CITES, says the outlook remains grim for the African elephant.

“In 2011, our estimate, based on all the data and analysis that we do, is that 25,000 African elephants or in that order were illegally killed on the African continent in 2011. We’re still analyzing the figure for 2012 but it looks like it’s no better and possibly worse. So we’re dealing with a significant escalation in the illegal killing and we need to take significant measures to stop that.”

In 2010, steps to combat illegal wildlife trafficking led to the formation of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime. It brings together five inter-governmental organizations - CITES, the international police organization Interpol, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Customs Organization and the World Bank.

Scanlon says while the coordination is necessary, greater political will from governments is also required to combat the trade.

“So you have a response that’s more commensurate with the scale of the risk. It’s still a long way to go. We believe that we know what we need to do. The issue is, do governments have the collective will to take this on in a way that we need to if we are going to win it?”

Activists say while the conference is likely to adopt most proposals for greater protection for flora and fauna, moves to provide greater protection for sharks will face resistance, especially from Japan and China.