CITES Delegates Vote to Shield Endangered Species Sun Nov 17,10:39 PM ET

ENS Correspondents,Environment News Service

SANTIAGO, Chile, November 15, 2002 (ENS) - Environmentalists have declared major victories at the United Nations (news - web sites) conference on trade in endangered species. Landmark decisions Friday to protect mahogany and the entire genus of the seahorse, along with a last minute decision in favor of regulating the trade of basking and whale sharks, capped the two week conference, which also saw a resounding defeat of Japanese efforts to increase whaling.

Although the approval of one time ivory sales and a failed effort to protect the Patagonian toothfish disappointed some conservationists, most believe the 12th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was a positive step forward in the protection of endangered species.

"These decisions will have significant benefit, not only for wildlife but for communities whose livelihoods depend on sustainable trade," said Susan Lieberman, head of WWF's delegation. "For the first time, CITES has assumed an important new role by regulating international trade in species traditionally regarded as commodities rather than wildlife."

The decision to list big-leaf mahogany, also known as American mahogany, on Appendix II of CITES is clear evidence of this new role, Lieberman said. Trade in species listed on Appendix II is regulated through the use of export permits. The mahogany listing includes logs, sawn wood and veneer sheets.

"It is highly significant that after 10 years of discussion, the Parties to CITES have agreed to regulate the trade in Latin American mahogany," said CITES Secretary-General William Wijnstekers. "The well tested control measures developed under CITES will prove invaluable for discouraging illegal trade. This decision will also benefit local and indigenous communities who have lost out to the illegal traders."

Big-leaf mahogany trees take some 60 years to mature and can reach a height of 500 feet. Worldwide demand for mahogany furniture has caused wholesale stripping of Amazon forests, resulting in an estimated 70 percent depletion of the world's supply.

"Individual trees are so valuable that roads are often cut through virgin forest to fell and extract a single specimen," said Caroll Muffett, director of international programs for the Defenders of Wildlife. "By bringing mahogany exploitation under control, CITES rules will help slow the pace of deforestation, and help prevent violent intrusions onto indigenous and protected lands where much of the remaining mahogany occurs."

The United States is the world's largest importer of mahogany, but the U.S. delegation supported the decision.

"We cannot take the risk that 50 years from now the only place anyone will see mahogany is in an old desk or chair," said Assistant Secretary of Interior Craig Manson, one of two leaders of the U.S. delegation to the Santiago conference. "[This] will ensure that mahogany will be harvested in a sustainable manner and help range states, especially Central America countries, better manage their forests."

Exporting countries have one year to come into compliance with CITES rules for legal and sustainable harvesting. The listing only applies to Central and South America, where big-leafed mahogany is native. The trees grow from the south of Mexico throughout Central and South America to Bolivia and Brazil, including large portions of the Amazon Basin.

The Appendix II listing does not apply to Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries that grow introduced mahogany trees.

Marine species were the source of considerable debate during the Santiago conference, and in Friday's final plenary session, attendees reversed earlier decisions and voted to list whale and basking sharks on Appendix II. These are the first sharks to be listed by CITES.

Opponents to the listing, led by Japan, claimed there was not enough scientific evidence to justify the proposal. In committee, the measure fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority required for listing on Appendix II. In the plenary session, however, the whale shark listing was approved 81 for and 37 against, and the basking shark listing approved with 82 for and 36 against.

"There is no doubt that the species meet the criteria for inclusion in Appendix II," said Steven Broad, executive director of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. "There is clear historical evidence that populations have declined as a result of fishing to supply international trade."

Whale and basking sharks are the world's two largest fish species, and both are hunted for their meat and fins. The fins of whale sharks fetch high prices in Asia, with a single fin reported to have sold for $15,000 in 1999. Both species are also highly migratory and often caught and killed accidentally as by-catch.

Conservationists hailed the defeat of Japanese proposals to resume trade of minke and Bryde's whales while also praising the decision to list all 32 species of seahorses on Appendix II.

"This listing is a call to action," said Amanda Vincent, professor with the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre and director of Project Seahorse. "The challenge now is for countries to regulate the vast international trade so well that seahorse populations begin to recover. Such an ambitious endeavor will require all possible collaborations. The CITES decision certainly marks a good beginning for the future of the world's seahorses."

According to the WWF, an estimated 24 million seahorses will be harvested this year, sold for aquariums or for use in Asian medicines. Seahorses, which live in tropical and sub-tropical waters, are also often caught as by-catch and killed by pollution and coastal development. Trade is estimated to be growing by eight to 10 percent per year.

An Australian led effort to provide the same protection for the Patagonian toothfish was met with stout resistance by the Chilean delegation. Patagonian toothfish is often served in restaurants as Chilean sea bass, and populations of the fish have sharply decreased due to increased consumption. Pressures from legal and pirate fishing have some scientists concerned the fish could be commercially extinct in several years.

U.S. officials have taken credit for brokering a voluntary resolution that they have said will improve international monitoring of harvest and trade of the toothfish. The resolution was unanimously accepted by the Parties at the conference, but it was met with sharp criticism by some conservationists.

"If the U.S. State Department is equating the new protections for seahorses with the toothless toothfish resolution, then they're telling one whopper of a fish tale," said Andrea Kavanagh, manager of the Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass campaign.

"The end result of this backroom deal is a toothfish resolution with no teeth, and no new protections for the species and the fishermen who depend on them. Illegal fishermen have just gotten the message that they can continue business as usual."

But not all conservationists see the brokered deal as a complete loss.

"This is a small, but significant step toward reducing the rampant pirate fishing that is wiping out whole populations of this species across the Southern Hemisphere," said Ginette Hemley, vice president of species conservation at WWF. "Unfortunately, there were not enough countries willing to support stronger measures to protect toothfish, but we see this as a start."

The decision to allow three African countries to engage in a one-time sale of ivory stockpiles also drew mixed reviews from conservationists. CITES will allow Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa to make one-time sales of ivory of 10, 20 and 30 tons, respectively. The stocks have been collected from elephants that died of natural causes or as a result of government regulated control of problem animals.

The decision to allow the one-time ivory sales has been "misrepresented in the media coverage thus far," said Tom Milliken, director TRAFFIC's East/Southern Africa program. The sales are strictly conditional and cannot proceed until monitoring baselines have been established, he explained.

"If this is successful, we may achieve a significant advance in how elephant populations are managed, and in particular, how ivory is traded in a way that limits impacts on wild populations," Milliken said.

Additional proposals to allow others to engage in one-time sales and to set annual quotas of ivory trade were withdrawn, but there is concern that even one-time legal trades could provide cover for illegal poaching and smuggling of ivory.

"The impacts of this decision won't be limited to South Africa or Namibia," said Muffett of the Defenders of Wildlife. "Neither elephants nor poachers respect international borders. This decision will send a signal to poachers everywhere that elephants are fair game again, putting elephants at risk wherever they occur."

"The United States' silence on so many issues is particularly regrettable when you consider how effective our government can be when it speaks out," said Muffett, pointing to the positive effects of U.S. leadership on marine issues at CITES, including its help in derailing Japan's efforts to reopen international trade in whales.

But he faulted the Bush administration for avoiding leadership on other issues. "This administration will be remembered more for sacrificing the elephant than for helping save the sharks," Muffett said.

U.S. officials rejected criticism of their role at the Santiago meeting, and Manson said "emotions run high any time you bring up the issue of elephants."

"In the end, we supported a solution that will allow Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to raise funds for elephant conservation through a one-time sale while providing safeguards to ensure the sale will not hurt elephant populations," the U.S. State Department official said. "The one-time sale will be good for elephant conservation."

Other decisions from the conference include the transfer of the yellow-naped parrot, the yellow-headed parrot and the blue-headed macaw, from Appendix II to Appendix I. This means that no commercial trade will be permitted. The three species are found in Central and South America.

Twelve proposals to include 26 species of Asian freshwater turtles and tortoises on Appendix II were unanimously approved by CITES delegates. A UK proposal to permit a Cayman Islands turtle farm to sell and license the export of shells from endangered green turtles was rejected.

Delegates also agreed to set a zero quota for commercial trade in the Black Sea population of bottlenose dolphins, which was already listed on Appendix II.

A number of threatened species in Madagascar will also receive stronger protection. These are the flat-tailed tortoise, various chameleons, a burrowing frog, and the Madagascan orchid.

Conference delegates also passed decisions to strengthen domestic conservation of threatened or endangered species already controlled by CITES, including bears, the tiger, Asian leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, sturgeon and the Tibetan antelope.

Some 1,200 participants from 141 governments attended the conference, as well as numerous observer organizations. COP-13 will be held in Thailand at the end of 2004 or in the first half of 2005.

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