Cites missing the big picture

There can be no sadder task for an animal lover than to formally declare a once-loved species extinct. But that duty fell to delegates at the 178-nation Convention in Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) conference in Bangkok this week as they removed a distressing number of now-extinct animals from protection lists that had failed to protect them. They included Australia's dusky flying fox and cartoon-like rabbit-eared bandicoot. And, at the rate humans are killing off wild animals and plundering the seas, more familiar species could be joining them.

Cites does seem to be losing the battle against trans-national criminal gangs, but wildlife traders are wrong to regard it as being a toothless tiger. It demonstrated its ability to unsheathe its claws last week when it slapped punitive sanctions on Guinea after it ignored frequent warnings. The West African nation was sanctioned for issuing fraudulent permits facilitating illegal trade in a variety of protected animals including the great apes. They will prevent Guinea from importing and exporting all the 35,000 species listed by Cites.

The UN organisation's drawback is that it has to rely on national and international law enforcement, which can be haphazard at best. Despite the efforts made to stamp out ivory smuggling, poachers killed an estimated 25,000 elephants last year and will probably kill even more this year. What Cites needs to do now is to go after the recipient countries and penalise them. It is all very well to name and shame offending source countries such as Thailand by putting them on watch lists and threatening them with wildlife trading bans if they fail to mend their ways, but surely that is only tackling half the problem.

Stamping out the demand and thereby removing the reason for the black market supply will take time and effort but can be achieved through judicious use of carrot and stick. Cites and other organisations should be working with the governments of major recipient nations such as China and other destinations used by traffickers to create educational awareness, change old-fashioned attitudes and mindsets and toughen laws. Ivory, pangolin and shark-fin soup are no longer status symbols; nor is rhino horn an aphrodisiac. There are plenty of twenty-first century replacements. China can do it. It showed how effective it could be when it targeted the trafficking of tiger meat and skins after an international uproar. It can do so again.

Thailand has promised to put its house in order but should not be alone in doing so. There is no shortage of wrongdoers in Southeast Asia and one of the largest traffickers lives in Laos. To reassure sceptics among the international community, the government also needs to publish a strict time frame of steps it will take to end the ivory trade and then follow it. It is not something that can be delegated to an obscure committee. The arrest this week of three policemen based at Suvarnabhumi airport on charges of trafficking rhinoceros horns into Thailand will have shown delegates at the Cites meet the enormity of the problem this country faces.

But none of this should distract Cites and its sister UN organisations from tackling the immense problems that exist offshore. The oceans might cover 71% of the earth's surface but radar, sonar, huge driftnets and long, many-hook lines used by fleets of ships leave little refuge as they scour supposedly protected seas to satisfy the demand for seafood, sushi, decorative fish, coral and rare shells, paving the way for a barren underwater world. Gradually the world's oceans are losing the life which sustains them. Action is needed on a global scale to protect them.