Cites wraps up in Bangkok to mixed reviews

Delegates from 170 countries passed proposals upgrading protection for more than 50 species, but critics warn that loopholes allowing trade in some critically endangered species remain unclosed

The Cites conference wrapped up in Bangkok on Thursday with opinions sharply divided on what advances the meeting made to protect the planet's endangered species. What progress the host country has made in this regard was also a subject of intense debate.

Humanity's obsession.

John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), was effusive in his assessment in his closing statements.

''It is a historical moment in which we have shared one voice to fight against illegal poaching of elephants and rhinos. We have agreed on deploying resources of technology, financing and better intelligence to overcome organised crime.''

Steven Galster, director of Freeland, an organisation combating wildlife trafficking, said it was disappointing that more was not done to protect certain species.

"Cites is a community, it’s a trade treaty of 178 governments, so compromise is sometimes inevitable. However, for some species there is no room for compromise, like tigers, elephants and rhinos. Cites parties had the power to shut the door completely on trade in these species, yet they left the door open for negotiations," he said.

The Cites conference was successful in providing protection for certain threatened species such as sharks and Thai rosewood, while it failed to strengthen protective measures for other species. For example, the proposal to move polar bears to the Cites' Appendix I list failed. The list comprises the most critically endangered species, for which trading is banned except, in some circumstances, for animals raised in captivity. Polar bears are now under Appendix II, which includes species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but may become so unless trade is closely monitored. Some hunting of polar bears is allowed by indigenous groups. In Canada an estimated 600 polar bears are killed annually. Polar bear skins can fetch US$12,000 (355,000 baht) or more, and throughout the Arctic, global warming is shrinking their natural habitat.

In all, 65 proposals to place species under specific Cites appendices were considered. A total of 55 were passed and 10 rejected. The conference unanimously agreed to improve trade controls on hundreds of new timber species, along with several tortoises and turtles and a range of plants and animals, including manta rays and five shark species.

The meeting, which began on March 3, was attended by more than 2,000 delegates from 170 countries.

ON THE HORNS OF IVORY DILEMMA

Even before the conference began, the illegal trade of African ivory and its devastating effect on African elephants took centre stage in Bangkok. Thailand has long been criticised for allowing the trade of ivory from domestic elephants in certain circumstances.

Critics call this a loophole that allows the illegal ivory trade to flourish. Before the conference a global petition calling on Thailand to abolish the ivory trade was presented to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Ms Yingluck responded by promising delegates at the conference's opening on March 3 that the ivory trade would be abolished in Thailand. However, critics point out that no timeline has been established to pass the necessary laws to do so, and until the laws are passed and enforced, the trade will likely continue in Thailand.

STILL VULNERABLE: Inuit hunters skin a polar bear at Frobisher Bay in Canada’s Northwest Territories. A proposal to to increase protection of the bears failed.

Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, deputy director-general of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department said he would submit an action plan regulating the domestic ivory trade to the Cites standing committee. On Thursday, he told Spectrum that international concern over the issue is welcome. However, he said, Thailand has long attempted to explain to the international community its efforts to solve the problem of illegal trade in ivory and wildlife.

''In reality, the Thai government has continuously suppressed the illegal ivory trade, and it is not because Cites or any NGOs force us to do so. It is a global problem which needs a collaborative effort.

''We do understand the concerns and are willing to take any suggestion into consideration,'' he said.

However, the Cites standing committee is not budging from its demand for an immediate ban of the ivory trade. During the meeting, the committee said a ''Gang of Eight'' countries - Thailand, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China - must completely stop trading in ivory or face severe sanctions.

Senior Cites official Tom de Meulenaer said the eight countries must implement targeted, precise and measurable steps to stop the ivory trade within a year or be subject to stiff sanctions in trade in all flora and fauna, including in some species which are a significant source of revenue for Thailand.

Tom Milliken, head of the Elephant Trade Information System, said at the Cites summit that his organisation has found that the eight countries have been major players in the ivory trade for over a decade.

Meanwhile, Patrick Omondi, senior assistant director of Wildlife Service in Kenya, said that these countries are making it difficult to crack down on elephant poaching in Africa.

''Without a demand reduction, we are not going to win this war,'' he said.

Mr Theerapat said: ''We have to do it from both sides. Reducing the supply will in one way or another affect the demand as well.''

Thailand is obliged to do a regular survey of shops selling ivory products and also survey the number of tusked elephants at elephant parks, to help guarantee that Asian ones in the wild are not being hunted for ivory. A report will be made to the Cites standing committee within two months' time for consideration before any further action.

THAI MOTIONS

Thailand submitted proposals to move two native species - the saltwater crocodile and the Siamese crocodile - from Appendix I to Appendix II on the grounds that over several decades, successful breeding programmes had reduced the threat facing both species.

At present both crocodile species can be sold commercially if they have been bred in captivity. Both motions were defeated. The motion to relist the Siamese crocodile received more votes and was reopened, but failed again. Both proposals are likely to reappear at the Cites meeting in South Africa in 2016.

''We can provide more information on their population in the wild to the meeting,'' said Wimol Jantrarotai, director-general of the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry's Fisheries Department.

GAUDY GIFTS: A worker cleans the preserved heads of saltwater crocodiles to be sold as souvenirs at a crocodile farm in the southern Philippines.

A Thai proposal to protect phayung, or Siamese rosewood, (Dalbergia cochinchinensis) under Appendix II was more successful.

Conservationists hope the move will help put a stop to the rampant illegal logging of the tree.

Duangdeun Sripotha, a plant researcher for Cites Thailand, said that at present the only Siamese rosewood trees left in the country are in protected forests in the Northeast, and these are rapidly vanishing. In 2005, a survey estimated 300,000 trees were left in the forest. Last year, however, the estimate was slashed to 100,000.

''Inclusion in Appendix II will help reduce smuggling of rosewood outside the country,'' said Mr Theerapat said. He added that international trade will be possible once the tree is successfully and legally planted for commercial purpose.

In other developments, the Cites membership voted to restrict the international trade in manta rays and place the fish in Appendix II. Thailand supported this move despite concerns about the negative impact it would have on the local ornamental fish breeding industry.

Three of the four manta ray species listed are popular among Thai breeders, who have traditionally obtained them from South American countries.

Mr Wimol said Thailand would see little if any negative impact from the move, as local breeders no longer needed to import the fish.

Along with manta rays, five shark species _ oceanic whitetip sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks, great hammerhead sharks, smooth hammerhead sharks and porbeagle sharks _ gained protection under Appendix II.

This move was previously rejected at the Cites conference in Doha in 2010.

Elizabeth Wilson, a manager of Pew Charitable Trusts' Global Shark Conservation project, called the protections for sharks ''a landmark for this Cites meeting''. A report tabled by the US, which co-sponsored a proposal with Colombia to list the oceanic whitetip shark in Appendix II, says sharks are over-harvested in many parts of the world, primarily for their fins. Most shark fins are exported to Asia for shark fin soup.

Due to their low reproductive rate and high economic value, populations of these species have been devastated. Porbeagle sharks also face pressures due to demand for their meat, while manta rays are over-harvested for their gill plates.

China, as the world 's largest consumer of shark, along with Japan, led the effort to reject the shark proposals without success.

''More and more countries understand the problem and now support the sharks proposals,'' said Ms Wilson.

It is expected that more shark species, hunted because of the high prices they fetch, will also be protected under Cites. Studies are now being conducted to provide substantial scientific evidence of declining populations before the submission of proposals to include them in Cites appendices.

Cites delegates also looked into measures to protect African rhinoceroses from extinction due to the illegal trade in the animal's parts, especially the horn. Vietnam is alleged to be a major driver in the demand for rhino horn.

Allen Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a non-profit conservation group based in Washington DC, told a sideline meeting that Vietnamese politicians and diplomats were involved in the illegal trade.

A total of 146 African rhinoceroses are known to have been killed since the beginning of this year, 107 of them in South Africa's Kruger National Park. In 2010, a total of 333 rhino were poached, 448 in 2011, and 668 in 2012. In 1977, Cites included all rhino subspecies in Appendix I. However, the southern white rhino population of South Africa was downlisted to Appendix II in 1994, as was the southern white rhino population of Swaziland in 2004.

The EIA urged the Vietnamese government to enforce strict laws on the illegal trade of rhino horn.

According to an EIA report, in the past 10 years Vietnam has become the world's largest importer of rhino horns from South Africa and studies indicate that Vietnam is not adequately enforcing its Cites obligations to monitor the import of rhino horn. The Vietnamese government denied the allegations saying that a lack of seizures by authorities indicates that the illegal trade in rhino horn is decreasing.

WHITE GOLD: A Kenya Wildlife Services ranger stands guard over an ivory haul seized as it transited through Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi.

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Writer: Tunya Sukpanich
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