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Saturday, 2 November, 2002, 23:56 GMT
Tough questions on species survival
Brazilian macaws
Brazil's macaws are among the most endangered species

The meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Santiago, Chile, has the task of balancing the protection of rare species with the promotion of sustainable development.

The organisation, which controls the trade in animals and plants, will be bombarded with conflicting demands to either tighten or loosen controls over certain species.

Asian black marsh turtles
Turtles saved from the illegal trade
The meeting starts on 3 November and has 59 proposals before it for changes to trade regulations.

They vary from trying to save Asian freshwater turtles to tightening controls on the trade in wild and cultivated monkey puzzle trees.

Representatives of the 160 countries which have signed up to the convention will meet for 12 days to consider the proposed changes.

Most publicity is likely to go to the request for permission to sell ivory stockpiles by five southern African states.

Japan's application to allow trade in northern hemisphere minke whales and the Pacific Ocean Bryde's whale will also be controversial as will the debate over controls on caviar exports.

But there is a wide variety of other issues and species to be discussed, including:

  • Kenya has called for a resolution to permit the rescue of endangered apes from war zones
  • Costa Rica has proposed the tightening of regulations on the trade in the yellow-naped parrot of Mexico and Costa Rica
  • Guatemala and Nicaragua want the trade in bigleaf mahogany to be more closely controlled to prevent depletion
  • New Zealand wants its endemic geckos to be subject to trade controls to stop illegal capture and because of depletion due to predation by feral cats and rats
  • The US suggests the removal of the orange-throated whiptail lizard from a restricted trade list because of its abundance in the wild

Conservation and poverty reduction

While the large, high profile species such as elephants and appealing ones like apes get a lot of public attention, Cites stresses that the convention is far more than just protection for "charismatic animals".

Klaus Topfler, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) which administers the Cites Secretariat, says protecting wildlife "is vital to the broader goal of making environmental conservation and poverty reduction mutually supportive".

He says that Cites is "on the front line of sustainable development".

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is nearly 30 years old.

Japanese whalers
Japan wants a to expand the trade in minke whales
It was established under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to regulate the trade in animals and plants to prevent species depletion or extinction.

In recent years, it has been at the forefront of efforts to stop the illegal trade in ivory, to prevent over-fishing of the Caspian sturgeon, to control the trade in endangered reptiles and to prevent the over-collection of rare orchids.

Although Cites oversees trade regulation it has to rely on signatory countries to implement the controls and prosecute offenders.

Through the operations of the secretariat and the full Cites meetings every two to three years, the parties to the convention list endangered species according to the extent of the threat to their survival and set the parameters for trade in those species.

Meetings are characterised by heated arguments between environmental organisations seeking to stop or limit the exploitation of wildlife resources and countries or groups which support the use of those resources for wealth generation or poverty alleviation.

Sustainable development has become a buzz word in the debate over poverty and environmental protection and is likely to figure prominently in Santiago.

Polarised views

Jacques Berney, a former deputy secretary general of Cites and now vice president of the IWMC World Conservation Trust, told BBC News Online that sustainable development was the most viable way forward for conservation.

He says Cites was always intended to promote sustainable trade rather than being an instrument to prevent trade.

He is concerned that some environmentalists are totally opposed to a sustainable development approach and "are trying to prevent Cites going in this direction".

But conservation organisations worry that if sustainable development becomes the mantra for Cites then the aim - the primary one in their view - of preventing species loss will be diluted or lost.

Mary Rice, of the pro-conservation Environmental Investigation Agency, told BBC News Online that the positions of those supporting sustainable development and many of the animal welfare and conservation groups had become totally polarised.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) opposes the commercialisation of species.

Phylllis Campbell-McRae of Ifaw told the BBC that while local use of wildlife for subsistence was clearly acceptable, the "opportunistic commercialisation of species" for profit should be opposed.

She said that the problem with sustainable development was that it could come to mean commercial exploitation of animals which would work to the detriment of species survival.

Ivory on sale in Bangkok
Ivory products are openly on sale in Thailand
The potential conflict between those viewpoints is likely to dominate the debate over ivory stockpiles and over the regulation of other commercially exploitable species.

This is a tension that will inevitably stay with Cites.

Former Cites official Jacques Bernay says some of the conflict comes from a form of "eco-imperialism".

He believes that developed countries which tend to be importers of wildlife products too often seek to interfere in the conservation policies of the exporting nations, largely developing countries.

When we come to look back on this meeting and Cites looks ahead to the next one, we will surely see the ivory trade, the hunting of whales and the sustainable development question still high on the agenda.

See also:

14 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
04 Oct 02 | Asia-Pacific
13 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
14 May 02 | Science/Nature
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