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Last Updated: Monday, 4 October, 2004, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
New wildlife trade curbs sought
Humphead wrasse (WWF-Canon / Michèle Dépraz)
The humphead wrasse (top-right) is a delicacy for some in Asia
An international conference on wildlife trade has opened in Thailand with calls for stronger curbs on illegal trafficking in rare animals and plants.

In his opening speech, the Thai prime minister urged states to fight criminal gangs said to be involved in the trade.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites) is holding its biennial meeting in Asia for the first time.

Delegates have been joined by pressure groups and thousands of observers.

The meeting in Bangkok, the 13th of its kind, has some 50 proposals to work through.

Delegates from 166 Cites member-states must decide the degree to which charismatic creatures such as the great white shark and the African elephant can be exploited commercially.

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Other important decisions at the 12-day summit will affect the minke whale, which Japan believes is now numerous enough to be hunted for food; and the ramin timber tree, a tropical hardwood which conservationists say is coming under extreme pressure from legal and illegal logging.

Some believe that the only means of conserving endangered animals and plants is to outlaw their exploitation altogether.

Others think conservation would be better served if a sustainable trade was allowed to raise funds for better management programmes - with the African elephant often cited as the classic example of where this practice should operate.

Levels of protection

There is a sizeable lobby at this particular meeting that wants improved protection for a large reef fish known as the humphead wrasse, which is regarded as a delicacy in many Asian restaurants.

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Cites, which was signed in 1975, operates a classification system, in which threatened animals and plants are placed in one of three appendices.

It is to Appendix II, for example, that many nations with the support of environmentalists would like to elevate the humphead wrasse. Australia and Madagascar also seek similar protection for the great white shark.

The trade in wildlife is worth billions of dollars a year and the Cites meetings are usually marked by a clash of interests, ideologies and cultures.

Appendix I: controls species whose existence is so threatened that trade is banned. Covers some 1,000 plants and animals, eg great apes
Appendix II: Allows controlled trade, under a system of permits. Covers 4,100 animal species and 28,000 plants
Appendix III: Contains 290 species that are protected in at least one country.

In his speech, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra warned that the world's bio-diversity was under threat and said governments had to work together more effectively to tackle wildlife smuggling.

He also proposed a regional task-force for South-East Asia so police and customs officers can share information.

The BBC's Simon Montlake in Bangkok says Thailand has become a hub for wildlife trafficking from South-East Asia and other regions into China and parts of North Asia.

The biggest market for rare species in Asia is China, which has long used animal parts such as rhino horn in traditional medicine.

Watch footage of many rare and endangered species

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