Tanzania has the second-largest population of elephants after Botswana, but herds are being targeted by poachers to feed the growing global demand for ivory. A global group known as CITES agreed at its 2013 meeting, concluded March 13, to require countries to enforce the ban on ivory trade or risk sanctions.
(Photo: Richard Ruggiero, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Some of the world's imperiled animals, including sharks, manta rays, rhinoceroses, turtles and elephants - traded for body parts to make soup, medicines and other goods - received new protections from an international convention that concluded Thursday.
Five species of sharks and two types of mantas were added to a global list of threatened animals whose commercial trade is regulated. Also approved were steps to enforce bans on the trade of endangered rhinos and elephants and new efforts to protect 47 species - mostly Asian - of turtles and tortoises,
These measures, proposed by the U.S. government, won passage from a group of 178 countries that belong to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), meeting this year in Bangkok. The group, begun in 1973, meets every two to three years to decide which animals are imperiled enough to warrant either a ban or a limit on their trade.
"This was a landmark meeting, We had a lot of gains," says Ginette Hemley of the World Wildlife Fund, an environmental group that monitored the talks. She says illegal wildlife trade, valued at $7.8 billion to $10 billion annually, is "now recognized as a serious crime."
In parts of Africa, she says, trades in ivory from an elephant's tusk are used to finance insurgency groups that destabilize governments. She says the horns of rhinos are prized, especially in Thailand, because of the "mistaken belief they cure cancer and hangovers." Her group says poachers killed a record 668 South African rhinos last year.
CITES voted to require the eight countries where the most ivory and rhino horns are illegally traded (China, Kenya, Malaysia, Philippines, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda and Vietnam) to boost enforcement or risk sanctions. They took similar steps with Vietnam and Mozambique, the largest traders of rhino horns. Unless these countries improve, they could be barred from trading any wildlife with other CITES members.
"The shark proposals were probably the most significant advancement," says Dan Ashe, who heads the Fish and Wildlife Service, which led the U.S. delegation. He says they're the first CITES protections for sharks that are traded in large volumes, often for their meat and their use in Asian shark-fin soup.
The five protected shark species include the oceanic whitetip, scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, smooth hammerhead and the porbeagle. Sharks and manta rays, whose gill plates are sold as a purifying tonic, are vulnerable to overfishing, because they are slow to mature and have few offspring.
Fishermen will have to prove they legally harvested these species and obtain permits for their export. Scientists estimate that people kill about 100 million sharks each year.
Ashe says some of the 47 species of turtles and tortoises are highly endangered and their trade will be banned while others will face limited trade. He says these animals are wanted as pets and for medicinal purposes.
The only major U.S. proposal that didn't succeed, Ashe says, was an effort to ban the commercial trade of polar bears, which are hunted for their skins, claws and teeth. He says climate change, notably the melting of Arctic sea ice, is the primary reason for their endangerment but trade has become an increasing problem. He says Russia supported a trade ban, but Canada and Greenland did not.
Henley says CITES has made a difference over the past 40 years. She says it helped the recovery of big cats by banning trade in leopards, cheetahs and jaguars and has brought back alligators and crocodiles, which once faced drastic declines.
Wendy Koch, USA TODAY