Issue of November, 10, 2002
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Dialogues
A Crusade in Favor of Whales and Elephants
By Alicia Sánchez

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) is an example of a successful environmental treaty, the Latin American director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), said in an exclusive conversation with Tierramérica.

SANTIAGO, (Tierramérica).- Gathered in the Chilean capital are some 2,000 delegates from 160 countries who are debating the future of thousands of endangered species, including two of the most popular among poachers: elephants and whales -- giants of the land and sea.

Decisions on proposals to loosen bans on trade in these species will be defined this week at the 12th Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which wraps up Friday, Nov 15.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which has organized worldwide campaigns to protect threatened fauna and is attending the CITES meet as an observer, is lobbying to maintain the bans on trade in elephant and whale species and their products.

Tierramérica spoke with Beatriz Bugeda, an expert in international law and IFAW's Latin American director:

Japan is trying once again at this conference to reopen international trade in whale products. Will it be successful this time around? Japan has been working to reopen the whale trade since 1986, when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) enacted a moratorium against the practice. But the Japanese initiative will fail because the IWC has not issued a decision on the matter. And until it does, I don't think CITES is going to move to authorize a reopening of trade.

Another issue involving Japan is the ivory market, as it is one of the leading importers. So in addition to whales, Tokyo wants to see a renewal of trade in elephant products, particularly the ivory of their tusks. Exactly. Japan is one of the leading consumers of many of the products coming from species that are endangered or on their way to extinction. Five Southern African countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe) are proposing a reopening of the ivory trade. If they succeed, there will be a massacre; the elephant population will be devastated. India and Kenya have presented a proposal for just the opposite, that is, for a total ban in ivory trade, and moving all elephant species to the CITES Appendix I, which offers greater legal protection.

The African countries say they have achieved consensus on reopening trade, an agreement reached at a meeting prior to the CITES conference. That's what they say, but how can we talk about consensus when Kenya is opposed to the initiative? Many of the countries in which elephants are found were not even present for that meeting (22 out of 37 such countries attended), and India was not allowed to take part, not even as an observer, even though it has large elephant populations.

What is the balance of power regarding the ivory trade proposal? Most of the countries are believed to be against renewing trade, but it remains to be seen what arguments they will use. We hope that the European Union, whose 15 members should vote as a bloc, reject it. Germany and France have already announced that they will oppose renewal of trade, but Britain has not been clear on its stance.

The fate of sharks is also on the table at the CITES meeting. What do you expect to come out of the talks about these giant fish? We hope the initiative to place the whale shark and the pilgrim shark on the CITES Appendix II list is successful, which would establish a shark fishing management plan. The shark situation is truly alarming. More than 100 million are caught each year and there is no international system to provide data about the potential threats that commercial trade could entail for this species.

Has CITES been effective since it entered into effect in 1975? Without a doubt it is the must successful international convention in the area of protecting the environment and endangered species because it involves monitoring and the application of the law. It truly does have what we lawyers refer to as "teeth".

* Alicia Sánchez is a Chilean journalist and IPS contributor.

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