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DECISION 2010: Life or Death for the World’s Wildlife

From Animal Issues, Volume 40 Number 4, Winter 2009

Published 11/16/09
By Adam M. Roberts, Senior Vice President

Are we prepared to return to the killing fields of the 1970s and 1980s, when hundreds of thousands of elephant carcasses littered the African savannah, their faces literally sawn off for their bloody ivory tusks?

Are we content to stand aside idly and enable global fisheries industries to purge the oceans of sharks and bluefin tuna with unfettered abandon?

Are we willing to let our government work in favor of the American trapping industry’s campaign to sell bobcat pelts overseas?

Born Free USA says NO and works tirelessly to save wildlife from poachers, trappers, and commercial exploitative industries.

But will commonsense prevail when thousands of delegates descend on the Sheraton Doha Resort & Convention Hotel, March 13–25, 2010 in Doha, Qatar for the 15th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) for another biennial bare-knuckled brawl over the fate of numerous imperiled wild animals and plants?

Signed in Washington, DC in 1973, CITES is the world’s largest wildlife convention with 175 signatory nations. Government delegates will be lobbied hard on every agenda item by numerous nongovernmental organizations. Born Free USA will be there. But likely so, too, will Safari Club International, the Japan Federation of Ivory Arts and Crafts Associations, Japan Fisheries Association, and International Fur Trade Association.

From Africa to America to the Arctic

No elephant should be slaughtered — no baby elephant orphaned — to supply China and Japan with ivory chopsticks, statuettes, or name seals called “hankos.” African elephants (Loxodonta africana) received a brief reprieve after listing on CITES Appendix I in 1989, which prevented primarily commercial international trade in elephant parts. The 1989 CITES vote was in response to the continent-wide elephant poaching that more than halved numbers from roughly 1.3 million to fewer than 600,000 in just 10 years.

Pro-ivory trade forces — determined and well-financed — have worked hard for two decades to weaken the ban. Within five years, Southern African countries were pushing for a reversal. In 1997 Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe were allowed a limited sale of stockpiled ivory to Japan, along with elephant hides, hair, and leather. South Africa later joined them in a further “one-off sale” of 108 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan, sanctioned by the USA and European Union.

Now Born Free USA has learned that Zambia and Tanzania are also asking CITES to “downlist” their elephant populations under CITES. Their intentions are crystal clear — they want to sell ivory.

This request simply defies logic. Zambia has tried before to sell ivory and failed. Tanzania has been implicated in numerous illegal ivory shipments overseas. Just this summer, for instance, two tonnes of elephant ivory (probably the remains of 150 elephants) was smuggled from Tanzania to Vietnam.

However, a stalwart coalition of like-minded African nations — among them Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, Republic of Congo, Mali, and Sierra Leone — are pushing back, proposing to remove the exemptions that currently allow limited ivory trade, while additionally calling for a twenty-year moratorium on further ivory trade proposals.

This “resting period” is vital to demonstrably reduce elephant poaching and support developing nation governments, which currently lack the resources — human and financial — to successfully beat back the elephant poachers and ivory dealers.

While the ivory wars rage anew, the US delegation is expected to try again to remove the bobcat (Lynx rufus) from CITES altogether. The US has campaigned relentlessly for a decade to delist the bobcat, but has repeatedly faced stiff opposition from the European Union. The highly endangered Iberian Lynx is virtually indistinguishable from the American bobcat. The EU fears that unregulated and unpermitted trade in American bobcats will lead to the slaughter of the Iberian Lynx, their furs merely laundered in with the legal shipments.

To its credit, however, the US is proposing to increase CITES protection for the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) thus ending all primarily commercial trade in the species. This move comes hard on the heels of the recent US decision to list the polar bear as “threatened” under the US Endangered Species Act. According to the Department of the Interior, “Limiting commercial trade in this species will address a source of non-climate stress to polar bear populations, and contribute to long-term recovery.”

Deep, blue, empty ocean?

CITES meetings once were dominated by discussions of charismatic, land-based megafauna. Now, commercially traded timber and fish species feature highly as Parties recognize the need to conserve all wildlife species and preserve healthy ecosystems. The Doha meeting will continue that trend.

Germany, through the European Union, has proposed listing two shark species on Appendix II: the porbeagle (Lamna nasus) and spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias). These sharks are not currently protected by CITES. Dogfish have been particularly susceptible over the past two decades to European fisheries, where the species is marketed as “rock salmon” and sold in the popular fried delicacy, fish and chips.

The US is also behind support for a number of shark species including hammerheads, dusky, and sandbar sharks. The US has expressed concern over the overexploitation of shark species for the trade in their fins (which are used in expensive soups in Asia). It is estimated that currently around 100 million sharks are caught and killed every year.

But perhaps the most explosive marine debate will center around the Principality of Monaco’s proposal to list the Northern bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) on Appendix I — thus ending commercial trade in the species. Massive, migratory bluefin tuna (they can grow to nearly ten feet long and weigh more than a thousand pounds) have been severely overfished internationally and are thought to be on the verge of commercial extinction, meaning there are simply not enough to fulfill the commercial market for them. The Obama Administration was unwilling to cosponsor the proposal, but is rumored to strongly support its passage.

Who speaks for disappearing wildlife?

Thousands of animal and plant species are listed under CITES and thereby subject to international trade restrictions. But all too often, this protection comes at a time when the species is already in serious trouble. It’s an emergency room approach when preventive medicine is called for.

But we must, nonetheless, do all we can to ensure that every species in need of international protection receives it. The African and Asian elephant, the ornate spiny-tailed lizard, the bobcat, the sharks, the polar bear, the tree frog, the rhino, the tiger, the corals ... they are all species in need of help. And others such as the African lion are knocking on the door. We must protect them now with all the vigor we can muster.

The ivory traders are ready for a fight. The commercial fisheries are ready for a fight. The trapping and fur industries are ready for a fight. And Born Free USA is ready to win the fight on behalf of wildlife.

You Can Help Us Win in Doha!

  • Please send the most generous donation you can marked “CITES” and it will underwrite our efforts on behalf of elephants, bobcats, polar bears, sharks, and all wild animals whose future may be decided in March.
  • Drop a note to the US Delegation urging them to stand unequivocally opposed to all proposals to weaken protection for African elephants and allow ivory trade and to support the African Elephant Coalition’s effort to enact a twenty-year moratorium on ivory trade proposals. Mention the other issues raised in this article as well. Send your letter to:

The Honorable Ken Salazar
Secretary of the Interior
1849 C Street
Washington, DC 20240

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