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FOCUS: WILDLIFE SOS
Little celebration as Cites ends
Scientists say they feel let down that little substance was achieved at wildlife summit.
Last Modified: 26 Mar 2010 08:39 GMT
Upholding the ban on the trade of ivory in Africa is one of the few Cites successes [STIG NYGAARD]

It is to be expected that there will always be winners and losers at international summits, but the list of victors at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife, Fauna and Flora (Cites), which concluded on Thursday in Qatar, has been spectacularly short. 

Cites, the only UN body with the power to ban trade in endangered animals and plants, did enact international laws which now extend protection to a rare salamander in Iran and the spiny-tailed iguanas of Guatemala.

special report

But of the 42 proposals during the past two weeks, it was Monaco's proposal to have a complete ban on the international commercial trade in Atlantic Bluefin tuna, and the efforts to protect the hunting of sharks for their fins, that at the end proved the most contentious - and the conference's greatest failure.

The Monaco proposal was defeated by a vote of 68 to 20. The measure needs the support of two-thirds of the nations attending the Doha conference.

The Bluefin tuna of the Mediterranean is likely to still be corralled into nets in ever-diminishing numbers; the sharks of the Gulf will still be hauled bloody and dead out of the sea for their fins.

"It is shameful that many Cites governments ignored science in favour of political gain when making decisions on marine species. These issues dominated this meeting and will come up again in future meetings," Carlos Drews, the head of the World Wide Fund's Species Programme, said in a press release from Doha.

"If Cites cannot set aside political considerations and follow scientific evidence, the implications for conservation, sustainable use of marine species and coastal livelihoods are worrying."

Cash machine

Other groups that were pushing for a ban say that their efforts failed simply because the trade in Bluefin tuna and shark fin generates far too much money. The Bluefin sushi market is worth billions in Japan, and the shark fin soup market in China is considered a lucrative business.

The last thing vested interests - the fishing companies, some governments, and their consumers - wanted was a ban, which would erode their profits. Australia, Canada and Japan are among the countries refusing to back a total ban on the Bluefin tuna trade.

And there is much profit to be made. The flesh of Bluefin tuna is so prized that it can sell for several hundred dollars a kilogramme. A  Bluefin tuna weighing in at 262kg fetched a near-record 16.28mn yen ($175,000) at an auction at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market in January, according to media reports.

So the lobbying in the halls and corridors of the Sheraton Hotel in Doha has been intense. There have been reports of voter coercion, even bribery; some countries changed positions at the last minute.

Science ... trumped

Bluefin sushi remains an expensive delicacy in Japan, despite extinction fears [AFP]

Cites tried to circumvent this possibility by setting aside funds for smaller nations that can be divided up, to help implement bans or monitoring programmes. But at the end, it appears that self-interests triumphed over science and wildlife preservation.

Al Jazeera several times approached the Japanese delegation to the Doha conference to ascertain and understand their position on opposing a ban on Bluefin tuna trade, but they refused to comment.

However, the Japanese have made it clear that they believe the current quota system on Bluefin tuna is adequate.

They have previously said that they were willing to accept lower quotas but wanted those to come from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat), which currently regulates the trade.

A decade, no more

One balmy night at the Sheraton, a diminutive lady called Sylvia Earle took to the podium by the palm trees. She is about 60-years-old; a neat, brainy, head-teacher type. Earle is in fact one of the world's foremost marine biologists and has spent many hundreds of hours underwater diving with sharks.

She made an impassioned plea for the beleaguered hammerhead shark, one of the species up for listing to Appendix Two, or restricted trade. And she applied her words to all endangered species on earth.

"We have 10 years, no more, it is happening right now in our time," she said.

"If we do nothing and continue the way we are, it will be all over. More and more species will simply vanish. And it will be our fault," she added.

"When the world is down to the last tuna, someone will be willing to pay a million dollars to eat it."

As she and many other marine biologists and wildlife experts have been saying, it is not too late to save these animals and reverse their decline.

Ivory ban upheld

Cites managed to defeat efforts to downgrade the ban on the ivory trade in Africa [AFP]

Despite the marine failures, Cites has made a few strides in protecting other species of wildlife.

Over the years, trade in tigers, mountain gorillas and sea turtles has been banned. There still exist markets for these species but as a result of Cites such enterprises are controlled.

Tiger range countries, including China, reached a strong consensus in Qatar on the way forward to address pressing concerns of illegal trade threatening wild populations of Tiger and other Asian big cat species. 

Cites governments maintained their position against farming of tigers for trade in parts and derivatives.

There has also been a gradual recovery of some depleted whale species after they were listed on Cites' Appendix I, which includes species that are considered the most endangered by the international body.

The Doha conference also debated the nine-year moratorium on ivory trade that started in 2008. Tanzania and Zambia want a one-off sale of their ivory stockpiles.

The Cites secretariat had recommended the rejection of both countries' proposals, citing a poor enforcement of poaching and illegal sales domestically.

A separate proposal to downgrade Tanzania's elephants to a lower level of protection, which allows commerce if it is monitored and deemed sustainable, was also rejected.

African elephants, poached to the brink of extinction in some countries, have begun to recover. Trade controls have also enabled better policing of the illegal markets in animals like the East African Cheetah.

However, a US measure to increase protection of polar bears by having commercial trade of the animal completely prohibited, was defeated.

Porbeagle sharks, hit by overfishing in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, also won protection, while other delegates sought the protection of red and pink corals - which are being over-harvested for use in jewellery.

Cites also afforded protection to ocelots, jaguars, alligators and crocodiles, hunted for their skins, ensuring that these species have a better chance of survival.

Make-over?

However, the number of those who say Cites needs a make-over has swelled at this convention; the forum needs to grow the teeth of the tiger it aims to protect. Only 120 of the 175 members attended the Doha conferences this year.

How strong an international body like Cites will be when it has no legal powers to enforce its rulings on member countries is anyone's guess.

But while the number of endangered species continues to spiral downward, scientists, marine biologists, and the environmentalists all agree that Cites is very much needed and plays a crucial role.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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