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Monday, 10 April, 2000, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Analysis: What price sustaining a species?
whaler, whale and boat
A minke whale - and a boatload of protesters - are hauled aboard a Japanese whaler
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

To many people, it seems straightforward, rational and humane to outlaw the killing of whales and elephants.

They are the biggest examples of "charismatic megafauna" - flagship species that compel awe and affection from their human admirers.

But Cites, the UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is debating an end to the present bans on selling whale and elephant products.

And if it does not agree to lift the bans at this meeting, in Nairobi, then sooner or later it almost certainly will.

When the bans end, it ought not to spell disaster for either species. But in the long run it probably will.

An arguable case

Those who oppose the bans - Japan and Norway the whaling countries, several southern African states wanting to sell elephant products - do have a case that deserves a hearing.

The problem is that any limited agreement by Cites to trade whalemeat, or ivory and elephant hides, across frontiers could open the door to an uncontrolled slaughter.

elephant at bay
The poachers await Cites' vote
There are 12 species of great whale, and the hunters want to kill two of them, the minke and the grey whale.

The greys, which undertake an annual 20,000-kilometre annual migration between Mexico and the Arctic, number about 22,000 - probably enough for a limited catch.

There are thought to be more than a million minkes, far more than the minimum number required to allow a sustainable catch rate.

But many of the 10 other great whale species have barely begun to recover from the centuries of commercial slaughter. Some may never do so.

And it would be all too easy for unscrupulous governments, or freelance pirate whaling fleets, to hunt these species as well.

Easy to confuse

It is possible to distinguish between the meat of different whale species by using DNA analysis. Japan and Norway plan to do so.

But not many customs posts around the world have the equipment or the expertise to analyse a consignment of whalemeat and decide whether it is from the abundant minkes or the very rare and endangered blue whales.

There are similar arguments to support maintaining the ban on ivory sales from African elephants, imposed by Cites in 1989.

Poaching reduced the continent's elephants drastically. From an estimated 1,300,000 animals at the beginning of the 1970s, fewer than half that number survived 15 years later.

elephant calf
Future generations are threatened
Yet although Africa as a whole has lost huge numbers of animals, in some of the states wanting the ban lifted there are now too many elephants - too many for their own good and for the health of their habitat.

But if Cites allows sales of ivory - even from animals which have died naturally - it will be all too easy for the poachers to take aim again, confident they will be able to camouflage illegal tusks among those with official approval.

There are many more arguments on both sides. The conservationists say killing whales is an imprecise, hit-and-miss and often cruel business, which should be banned outright.

Paying their way

The whalers and the ivory traders argue that they want to make sustainable use of natural resources, using the proceeds to support human communities and protect the natural world.

Science, they say, supports them, with the conservationists forced to rely on sentiment alone.

The only species likely to survive in this crowded world are those which can prove their economic worth, so that we value them enough to conserve them.

In the short term, then, ending the whale and elephant bans should be good news for both species.

The snag is that those who stand to make the biggest profits from seeing the bans ended have the least interest in conservation.

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See also:

07 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
Ivory battle set to reopen
10 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
The allure of ivory
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