A Race to Save Threatened and Endangered Species

CITES COP 13, Bangkok, Thailand, October 2-14, 2004

story by Adam M. Roberts

When I visited Bangkok, Thailand in May, in preparation for the Thirteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), it was a much different city. Deprived elephants wandered the streets with their keepers, who charged tourists a small fee to have a photograph taken feeding a banana to the poor animal. The weekend market had scores of wild animals for sale, and a gaggle of intent onlookers watched a cockfight in the middle of a series of food stalls.

No such animal parades existed when I returned in October for the CITES conference. The Thai government had clearly made a conscious effort to hide such scourges, at least during the two-week meeting. Like a marathon, there are good stretches and bad stretches during CITES, but unlike a foot race, the race to save threatened and endangered wildlife is one of life and death for countless imperiled species.

CITES Parties overwhelmingly approved a proposal to increase global protection for the imperiled Irrawaddy Dolphin, despite Japan's overt attempt to scuttle the vote by calling for a secret ballot. The Irrawaddy Dolphin faces an extremely high risk of extinction due to gillnet and electric fishing, channel blasting, gold mining and international trade for captive display in dolphinariums. With more than 80 aquaria throughout Asia exhibiting dolphins, the threat to these endangered marine mammals is considerable.

Japan once again had a difficult time convincing even a simple majority of CITES Parties to support its misguided efforts to reopen international commercial trade in minke whales. International competency for decisions regarding whaling rests with the International Whaling Commission, which instituted a commercial whaling moratorium that took effect in 1986. Since then, Japan has been unyielding in its attempt to reopen the global whale meat trade, despite the fact that some whale populations were devastated in previous years as a result of the whalers' onslaught.

The great white shark, much-maligned in recent years as a vicious predator, was listed under CITES at this meeting, providing needed regulation in international trade. Great white shark teeth and jaw sets can fetch thousands of dollars; even individual teeth can sell for hundreds. The trade in shark parts, as is the growing case with many species, is facilitated by sales over the internet—a trade that appears to be completely unregulated. Australia and Madagascar deserve great credit for shepherding the proposal through CITES by an astoundingly supportive vote of 87 in favor, 34 against, with nine abstentions.

The proposal to "uplist" the African lion from Appendix II to Appendix I, thus shutting off international commercial trade, was stymied by vociferous lobbying from the Tanzania delegation and trophy hunting interests present at the meeting. The proponent of the uplisting petition, Kenya, argued lion population figures are hotly disputed, with some experts suggesting the continental figure may be as low as 16,000. Matters are made more complicated by regional variations. Although lions are still found in 89 locations in 37 range states, 45 percent of these locations are home to 70 or fewer animals.

A series of lion workshops are reportedly scheduled for early 2005. The outcome of these meetings in Africa may change the content of debate at future CITES meetings. Meanwhile, major importing countries, including the United States and the countries of the European Union, should reassess their domestic legislation with a view to stop the import of lion trophies from some countries.

Rhinos, too, felt the wrath of the powerful and well-financed trophy hunting industry, as hunting quotas were approved for black rhinos from Namibia and South Africa. These nations argued they had a surplus of resident animals within their borders, which could therefore withstand a seemingly small slaughter of five animals each year. AWI and other conservationists argued, to the contrary, that any trade in "surplus" black rhinos should be for in situ reintroduction programs to bolster other critically endangered populations in Africa.

Further, this renewed legal trade sends a mixed message to poachers and profiteers: it is acceptable to shoot rhinos to secure their horns as trophies, but not acceptable to shoot rhinos to secure their horns for traditional medicines or ceremonial purposes. AWI feels no endangered black rhinos should be shot for any reason. Additionally, Swaziland was granted permission to trade in live white rhinos and hunting trophies, limited to an annual export with an upper limit of 7 percent of the population and exporting no more than 1 percent annually as trophies.

The biggest CITES debate usually surrounds the ivory trade, and increasingly, other commercialized parts and products such as hides and hair. In Bangkok, Namibia pushed to allow the sale of 2,000 kg of raw ivory annually, trade in worked ivory for commercial purposes and trade in leather and hair goods.

As the debate raged on, with many African elephant range states opposed to the resumption of any commercial trade in elephant ivory, Namibia received permission to sell the elephant leather and hair. It lost its annual ivory quota request completely, and then modified its request for worked ivory for commercial trade to consist of a non-commercial trade in individually marked and numbered "ekipas" instead. Non-commercial trade would enable tourists to travel to Namibia and purchase ekipas if they are not intended for resale elsewhere.

Ekipas are customary ornaments, mostly worn as jewelry, created in Namibia. They are by no means exclusively ivory, however, as the Namibian Chamber of Commerce and Industry notes that traditionally some also have been "fashioned out of hippopotamus tooth or bone, and less often out of wood or the fruit of the Makalani palm."

The impact of international sale of ekipas could be enormous. According to Namibia-travel.net, the country receives nearly one million visitors a year: two-thirds are overseas tourists (mainly German, British, Italian, and French), and one-third are South African. Conservatively, if only 10 percent of these tourists bought an ekipa per annum (so up to 100,000 people), this would equate to 2,500 kg per annum (excluding the additional amount lost in the carving process).

This is nearly three times what the CITES Secretariat has estimated is the natural rate of elephant deaths and ivory accumulation in Namibia. These figures do not account for increased demand created by international sale of ivory ekipas. The Namibia Investment Centre admits domestic jewelers hope to expand business for ekipas "regionally, and ultimately internationally."

In the end, Namibia came out of the conference with an approved sale of ekipas for non-commercial purposes. We must now wait and see what the impact is on elephants as a result.

While this brief report highlights some of the more high-profile debates, there was other good news for wildlife at the meeting (species discussed in the previous issue of the AWI Quarterly). A tropical reef fish, the humphead wrasse, was given CITES protection, as were a number of Asian freshwater turtles and tortoises. The yellow-crested cockatoo was given the stronger protection for which we fought. And while the United States succeeded in decreasing protection for the bald eagle, they were forced to withdraw their proposal to remove CITES protection for the bobcat in the face of strong opposition.

The bottom line is wildlife is forever threatened with over-exploitation for international trade. In the race to save wildlife, there really is no finish line. This is why our participation at CITES meetings is so vital. 

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