Ivory trade, Chilean sea bass, mahogany to dominate CITES summit


Eryn Gable, Greenwire staff writer

Proposals to open up some trade in elephant ivory and impose tougher restrictions on the commercially important Chilean sea bass and big-leaf mahogany species are likely to dominate an international conference on trade in wild species next week. Many conservationists say the decisions could determine the long-term survival prospects for the species.

Wildlife authorities from 150 countries will consider 59 proposals to amend the list of species subject to trade controls at the 12th Conference of the Parties (CoP 12) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to be held Nov. 3 to Nov. 15 in Santiago, Chile.

"The Santiago conference is an opportunity to ensure that trade does no harm to plant and animal species," said CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers. "It will also address national efforts to conserve species that are not traded because they have become threatened or endangered."

Some of the major proposals at CoP 12 will involve minke whales, African elephants, endangered Asian freshwater turtles and Latin American parrots, and commercially valuable species such as big-leaf mahogany and Patagonian toothfish. "Protecting wildlife is vital to the broader goal of making environmental conservation and poverty reduction mutually supportive," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, which administers the CITES Secretariat. "Its well-honed regulations and practical programs put CITES on the front line of sustainable development."

Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson said Wednesday that the Interior Department will oppose Japan's proposal to resume commercial fishing of minke and Bryde's whales. Manson will lead a 47-person U.S. delegation at the conference with John Turner, a senior State Department official. The United States will also lobby for increased protections for some Asian turtle species, sea horses and the humpback wrasse (Greenwire, Oct. 31).

The United States has not announced its position on three of the most controversial proposals -- on ivory trade, Patagonian toothfish and big-leaf mahogany -- expected at the meeting. Officials have said they are waiting until the African range states finish their meeting this week on the ivory proposal before announcing a position.

"The mahogany and toothfish proposals clearly meet the scientific and trade requirements," said Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife trade program at the Humane Society of the United States. "There's no question it will come down to politics."

The Species Survival Network, an international coalition of 65 environmental, animal protection and conservation organizations from around the world, called on the United States last week to support whale, elephant and shark protection at the meeting. SSN delegates will advocate stronger protection for Black Sea bottlenose dolphins, four species of parrots, populations of vicuna and 30 other species.

The traditional battle between environmental and economic interests will also be a key feature of the meeting, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in March 2003. Telecky said there's always an undercurrent of pro-trade interests at the meetings that threatens to alter the main purpose of CITES toward an "agenda that's less precautionary and promotes trade even in face of uncertainty ... and sometimes even in the face of evidence that trade is going to cause harm to species."

Japan, which generally opposes efforts to increase regulation of trade in wild species, will also be a key player at the meeting, according to Ginette Hemley, vice president for species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund. "Japan will be formidable in these meetings," she said. "It invests more effort and puts more work into opposing regulatory measures than any other country."

African elephant is high-profile item

CITES banned trade in elephant ivory in 1989 after the trade wiped out half of Africa's elephants in 10 years. Immediately before the CITES ban, it was estimated that more than 90 percent of the "legal" ivory on world markets originated from poaching, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

IFAW estimates that the African elephant population has decreased from around 1.3 million in 1980 to 300,000 in 2002. In Asia, the group says only 35,000 are left.

After the eight-year ban on ivory sales, in 1997 CITES agreed to allow three African countries -- Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe -- to make one-time sales of their existing legal stocks of raw ivory. More than 109,000 pounds -- representing 5,446 tusks -- was sold to Japan in 1999, raising an estimated $5 million for elephant conservation in the three range states.

This year, the three countries plus South Africa and Zambia are proposing one-off sales of existing ivory stocks to be followed later by annual quotas. The proposals are for a first sale of 44,000 pounds and an annual quota of 8,800 pounds for Botswana, 22,000 pounds and 4,400 pounds respectively for Namibia, 66,000 and 4,400 for South Africa, and 22,000 and 1,100 for Zimbabwe. Zambia is proposing a one-time sale of 37,000 pounds.

The countries say they now have large numbers or elephants and need the profits from the ivory to fund environmental programs.

A proposal from India and Kenya, which are concerned about poaching in their own countries, argues that further ivory sales from African elephants should be clearly prohibited. Environmentalists also argue that the allowance of any trade in ivory drives poaching.

"If there is no trade, that reduces demand and in that way reduces demand for illegal ivory," said Jennifer Ferguson-Mitchell, spokeswoman for IFAW. "If we go ahead and let them sell their stockpiles, what we're going to see is more illegal ivory going to the markets."

The European Parliament adopted a resolution last week calling on the CITES parties to support the proposal to return all African elephant populations to the highest level of protection and to reject five proposals that would permit some trade in ivory. The resolution also calls for maintaining protection for species such as minke and Bryde's whales and the Black Sea bottlenose dolphin, and for controlling trade of the basking and whale sharks, all seahorse species and many freshwater turtles.

"An absolute majority is a clear political signal that testifies to the determination of the European Parliament to recognize the enormous value" of life, said Alexander de Roo, vice-chairman of the Parliament's Environment Committee. "The European Commission should now listen to what has been expressed by this vote and take it into consideration for the negotiations in Santiago."

Democratic Reps. George Miller (Calif.) and Christopher Shays (Conn.) have sent a letter, signed by 53 other House members, to the head of the U.S. CITES delegation encouraging the Bush administration to oppose ivory trade proposals. A similar letter from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and 18 other senators was also sent to the U.S. CITES delegation head.

Because the ivory trade issue constantly dominants the meetings, other countries are likely to put pressure on the southern African nations to withdraw the proposal so they can move on to other issues, according to Adam M. Roberts, a senior research associate at the Animal Welfare Institute.

"It's time the parties said enough is enough," Roberts said. "When CITES makes a firm statement and stands by that statement, poaching declines."

Conservation officials announced earlier this month that huge demand in China had made the country a major force in worldwide ivory demand. Less than 300 wild elephants remain in China.

The countries most involved, either as destinations or sources for ivory, were China, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Thailand. CITES will present the first analytical results from its monitoring system at CoP 12.

More than 400,000 pounds of illegal ivory have been seized since the 1989 ban, according to the report. Officials seized just 16,000 pounds of ivory in 1997 -- the most recent low point -- but the amount of ivory seized more than doubled just two years later before declining gradually to 29,000 pounds last year.

"Our analysis shows that, since 1998, demand for ivory in China has dramatically increased," said Tom Milliken, East/Southern Africa director of the wildlife trade monitoring organization TRAFFIC and one of the authors of the report. "In fact, it is the single most important factor influencing the increasing trend."

The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency released a similar report this week, saying smugglers are continuing to feed market demand for ivory in the Far East. China, Singapore and Hong Kong recorded their largest ivory seizures for more than a decade in 2002, EIA said.

"EIA has compiled clear evidence of a renewed threat to elephant populations through increasing market demand in the Far East," said EIA Chairman Allan Thornton. "To allow further legal sales will cause demand to rise and the deaths of thousands of elephants. It would be a massive conservation blunder."

EIA said undercover investigations in southern Africa, China and Japan revealed a well-organized smuggling syndicate responsible for shipping large quantities of illegal ivory since the mid-1990s. The EIA said the syndicate was centered in Lilongwe, Malawi, where poached tusks from Zambia and other southern African countries were packed for shipment via Durban, South Africa, to China and Singapore. The final destination for most of the ivory was Japan, EIA said.

Officials in Singapore seized six metric tons of smuggled ivory, headed for Japan, in June. But EIA said at least 18 previous shipments made it through to Japan and China. EIA said it saw widespread availability of ivory in China, as the majority of smuggled ivory evades detection by Chinese authorities.

Patagonian toothfish protections to be discussed

The Santiago conference will also discuss trade protection for the Patagonian toothfish, known commonly as Chilean sea bass. Australia wants the deep sea species protected under international law.

IFAW reports that illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing of this species is rampant, threatening fish populations and the livelihoods of legal fishermen. The British-based network TRAFFIC reports that total trade in unprocessed toothfish for 1999-2000 was as high as 59,000 metric tons.

"The species is so popular and there is so much demand worldwide for it as food, we could see the collapse of the Patagonian toothfish in the next five years if we don't stop illegal fishing and trade," said WWF's Hemley. "It's only a matter of years before it disappears as a commercial resource."

According to a report released last year by the National Environmental Trust, Chilean sea bass suffers from acute over-fishing by "pirate" poachers in the remote waters near Antarctica, and is on the verge of collapse. NET estimates that nearly 80 percent of Chilean sea bass sold on the world market are illegally obtained.

Poorly regulated ports in countries such as Mauritius, Namibia, Uruguay and increasingly in Indonesia serve as gateways for the illegal catches. Japan, the United States and Europe are the major importers of the fish.

The toothfish has a lifespan of up to 50 years, but does not start spawning until the age of 10 to 12 years. Many scientists say the toothfish will be commercially extinct in several years as a result of illegal fishing. The fishery around Crozet Island, southeast of South Africa, has already reached its point of commercial extinction.

Although the 1982 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was set up to manage the Southern Ocean ecosystem near Antarctica, many of the trading nations involved have not signed the convention, complicating regulation of fishing in the area. Environmentalists say the CITES listing will provide additional trade controls to support CCAMLR and remove current loopholes that allow poaching.

At a CCAMLR meeting before the conference, all nations except New Zealand requested that Australia withdraw the proposal. The lack of a CCAMLR endorsement going into the CITES meeting makes the proposal's chance of passing fairly weak, environmentalists said.

Administration signals likely opposition to mahogany listing

The United States, the world's largest importer of mahogany, has signalled its likely opposition to new trade protections for big-leaf mahogany at next week's meeting. Nicaragua and Guatemala have proposed listing the rainforest timber species under CITES' Appendix II, which allows for some commercial international trade.

Environmentalists say U.S. opposition would represent a retreat from a policy in place since the first Bush administration. The United States sponsored the original effort to regulate mahogany trade in 1992. The Clinton administration sponsored a similar proposal five years later.

Current harvest levels are likely to drive the species to commercial extinction in the near future, according to WWF. The group says big-leaf mahogany may already be close to commercial extinction in Bolivia and much of Central America.

Some European mahogany importers -- including Great Britain's largest independent hardwood importer, the Timbmet Group -- support the listing. But U.S. industry groups, such as the International Wood Products Association, say the science does not support an attempt to upgrade the mahogany listing.

Several aquatic issues on table

Meanwhile, Japan is seeking to open up trade in most Northern Hemisphere populations of minke whale and a Pacific population of Bryde's whale. The proposals include the use of DNA identification of individual whales to monitor catches and trade. Similar proposals failed at the CITES conferences in 1997 and 2000.

The Earth's two largest species of fish, the whale shark and the basking shark, are experiencing dramatic declines in their numbers due to over-fishing, according to IFAW. People consume whale shark meat and fins from basking sharks for shark fin soup. Sharks are also used in aphrodisiacs, health supplements and cosmetics.

Asia's freshwater turtles are collected and traded as pets, food and medicinal preparations in the continent. At Chinese food markets alone, an estimated 12 million to 20 million turtles are for sale annually. Experts fear many Asian turtle species will soon face extinction, and the conference will consider proposals for introducing trade controls on 26 freshwater species.

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