CITES Governments Depart Doha Leaving Marine Species Unprotected

DOHA, Qatar, March 25, 2010 (ENS) – Sharks, Atlantic bluefin tuna, corals and polar bears were the losers as delegates from 175 governments today wrapped up their two-week Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.

Opposition by Japan, China and their allies defeated every proposal to give CITES protection to lucrative marine species including hammerhead sharks, whitetip sharks, porbeagle sharks, and spiny dogfish sharks. A proposal to protect the porbeagle shark was initially accepted, but it was overturned today, during the final day of the meeting.

The United Nations meeting on endangered species trade did agree on better protection for rhinos, tigers, and a fish called the humphead wrasse.

Among the species that gained new CITES protection from the international exotic pet trade are four species of critically endangered spiny-tailed iguanas from Honduras and Guatemala, five species of Central American tree frogs, a critically endangered salamander from Iran known as the Kaiser’s newt, and a rare rhinoceros beetle from Bolivia.

Climate warming is melting the sea ice on which polar bears depend. (Photo by Steve Hillebrand courtesy USFWS)

Delegates turned down two proposals for sales of elephant ivory stockpiles, and voted to protect two South American trees used in the perfume and cosmetics industries.

The United States’ proposals for protection of the polar bear, Atlantic bluefin tuna, corals, and sharks failed to win approval.

U.S. negotiator Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tom Strickland told reporters on a teleconference Wednesday that it can take years and several CITES meetings to develop the consensus necessary to impose restrictions on international trade even it species are in danger of extinction.

“It was a difficult conference on getting the listings we sought,” said Strickland, “but the fact is we built coalitions. CITES history is that it’s a journey – with regard to elephants and big cats, it took more than one conference to build coalitions and get these issues addressed.”

Strickland said that the U.S. proposals brought international attention to the difficulties faced by these species.

The polar bear proposal led to the formation of the first CITES working group to study climate change, Strickland said, adding, the working group will focus on how changes in climate will affect polar bear habitat “so human impacts will be that much more problematic on this species already under siege.”

“I was impressed by the host country Qatar, from their leadership to their support on all of our proposals, which were supported by all the Arab countries too,” Strickland said.

But many conservation groups were deeply disappointed in the outcome of the conference.

Porbeagle sharks (Photo courtesy NOAA)

“This is truly catastrophic for sharks,” said Peter Peuschel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Close to 100 million sharks are caught every year and some shark species may have declined by as much as 80 percent in the past decade – yet Parties voted irresponsibly against any increased protection.”

“This meeting was a flop,” said Elizabeth Griffin, marine scientist and fisheries campaign at the conservation organization Oceana. “I question if CITES has the political will to protect economically valuable marine species like sharks. Scientific support for listing these shark species just couldn’t compete with dirty politics.”

“It appears that money can buy you anything, just ask Japan,” said David Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana. “Under the crushing weight of the vast sums of money gained by unmanaged trade and exploitation of endangered marine species by Japan, China, other major trading countries and the fishing industry, the very foundation of CITES is threatened with collapse.”

The lack of sufficient funding for CITES to continue its work has been a constant worry for outgoing CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers, who has served since 1999.

“We are talking about contributions from 175 countries for a total amount of between five and six million dollars a year. Ladies and gentlemen, that is not really something that is likely to affect the economy of any country,” Wijnstekers said in his opening remarks to the conference on March 13.

“I strongly urge the Parties to reverse the continuing negative financial development and to provide the funding of decisions at the same time as taking them,” Wijnstekers said. “A positive financial development would also be to move away from the earmarked funding of small projects and in the direction of a more programmatic approach.”

The funding problems and overwhelming workload of the CITES Secretariat are now on the desk of the incoming Secretary-General John Scanlon. An Australian national and a lawyer, Scanlon served on the Murray Darling Basin Commission, was an advisor to the World Commission on Dams, headed the IUCN’s Environmental Law Programme, and joined the United Nations Environment Programme in 2007, where he led the UNEP internal reform team.

A newly strengthened partnership with the international police force INTERPOL will be one of the tools Scanlon can use to protect CITES-listed species.

The organized illegal wildlife trade that takes place around the world can involve criminal gangs, armed with automatic weapons, who do not hesitate to murder the wardens, game scouts or forest guards who work to protect defenseless species.

Going through customs at Vancouver International Airport (Photo by Tonx)

“In the past, all too often, the response to such criminals has not been equally organized or sophisticated,” said Wijnstekers. “We are determined that there will be a level playing field and that a new era of wildlife law enforcement is introduced. An era where those who rob countries and communities of their natural resources will face a determined and formidable opposition. It is high time that more wildlife criminals end up behind bars, where they belong.”

Scanlon will work with the recently-formed International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime. Made up of the CITES Secretariat, INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank and the World Customs Organization, the consortium now is creating tools to help bring wildlife criminals to justice.

The consortium is cooperating on a manual to help gather more intelligence when smugglers are arrested; threat assessment advice to help countries design their response to wildlife crime; specialized advice on dealing with money-laundering and asset recovery; guidance on the international exchange of information between enforcement agencies; and efforts to raise funds for national capacity-building.

A CITES-INTERPOL law enforcement intelligence training for tiger range states was held in Jakarta last December.

At the Doha meeting, countries with rhino populations agreed to focus on increasing law enforcement, training of guards, strengthening border controls, improving rhino population monitoring, creating awareness raising campaigns in consumer countries such as Vietnam, and rooting out organized crime syndicates that are behind the increase in poaching and illegal trade.

Newly listed on CITES Appendix II, this red-eyed tree frog, Agalychnis callidryas, was photographed near Playa Jaco in Costa Rica. (Photo by Carey James Balboa)

While many conservation groups were disappointed in the outcome of the CITES meeting, others were more hopeful.

“As a result of this meeting, tens of thousands of individual animals that are affected by international trade each year will now be protected,” said Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife for Humane Society International. “We are extremely pleased with these results.”

Now is the time for joint action and for regulatory bodies to work together to ensure the continued survival of species threatened by wildlife trade, said the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, which maintains the authoritative Red List of Threatened Species.

IUCN provides scientific and technical information to CITES, which offers varying degrees of protection to more than 33,000 species of animals and plants in trade, through a system of regulations, permits and certificates.

“CITES CoP15 has highlighted the challenges facing this convention as one of the many existing agreements for managing commercially important species sustainably,” said Sue Mainka, head of IUCN’s delegation.

“However, the decisions taken at CoP15 should stimulate further evolution of CITES including development of tools and mechanisms needed to support efforts to achieve sustainable management of natural resources,” she said. “Those resources are fundamental elements of our economy and people’s livelihoods.”

The next CITES meeting will be held in Thailand in 2013, when protection of endangered species from international trade will be considered anew.

For previous ENS coverage of the 15th Conference of the Parties to CITES meeting in Doha, please see:

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