Hippos, Sharks Called for Protection at UN Wildlife Conference

Hippos poached for their skin and teeth, sharks targeted for the fin trade and a tiny frog with translucent skin are among hundreds of species to be better protected at a United Nations wildlife conference that opens on Monday could.

The 184-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meeting in Panama in the next two weeks, will consider this Tightening of the trade regulations around 600 potentially endangered plants and animals. Nine other types are recommended for less restrictive international trade regulations.

“The goal of CITES is to ensure that these wild species can survive in the wild for future generations,” Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero told The Associated Press. “The concern is that if we don’t regulate this trade, there will be too much use, too much trade and it will get traded because it’s very valuable.”

The international wildlife trade accord, passed 49 years ago in Washington, DC, has been lauded for helping stem the illegal and unsustainable trade in ivory and rhino horn, as well as whales and sea turtles.

But it has come under fire for its borders, including its reliance on cash-strapped developing countries to combat the illicit trade that has become a lucrative $10 billion business.

Millions of species are not listed under CITES — including more than a third of the online reptile trade, according to a study. Domestic markets are beyond the reach of the agreement, and some experts have complained that CITES listings often come after a species is too far away. The Internet fuels illegal trade. An investigation this month by the Wildlife Conservation Society found that jaguar parts, the trade of which is commercially banned under CITES, were widely available online.

Still, conservationists say CITES remains the only tool available to ensure trade in plants and animals is sustainable. Governments will list species that require a permit, bringing some level of transparency to the trade. Or if the trade endangers a plant or animal, a listing will limit or ban it altogether.

“CITES works, but it is only as good as its implementation by exporting countries, transit countries and importing countries,” said Susan Lieberman, vice president for international policy at WCS.

“The contract is excellent. It’s the only tool we have in the midst of a biodiversity crisis,” she continued. “We don’t have to weaken it. We need to strengthen CITES and maybe even cover more species. We also need to ensure, whether through multilateral donors, foundations or whatever, that more resources are available to help countries that are challenged to implement CITES.”

Fans of hippos, which can be found in more than three dozen African countries and regularly featured in nature documentaries, are counting on the convention to ban commercial trade.

Ten African countries have proposed banning the trade in hippos, which are hunted for their ivory fangs and, more recently, their skin, which is used in belts, handbags and clothing. According to the CITES trade database, the United States and France were the top importers of nearly 78,000 hippo parts between 2009 and 2018, with the majority coming from Tanzania. Another 79,000 pounds (36,000 kilograms) of hippopotamus ivory went to Hong Kong and China for hunting trophies, figurines and knife handles.

The concern is that hippos, already suffering from climate-related drought and development, may not survive widespread poaching.

“It’s great when countries do things domestically and try to take things into their own hands to protect their own people,” said Tanya Sanerib, the international legal director of the Center for Biodiversity, which addressed the Humane in March Society International followed suit with the US Fish and Wildlife Service listing hippos under the Endangers Species Act.

“But if we don’t have that kind of international cooperation that CITES is supposed to promote, it sends mixed signals about what’s really happening and whether a product is legal or illegal,” Sanerib said. “So getting this commercial trade ban in place would be important to send that signal loud and clear that ivory is off the table.”

The proposal to ban the hippo trade is opposed by the European Union, some African countries and several conservation groups, who argue that many countries have healthy hippo populations and that the trade is not a factor in their decline.

Sharks are also ready for increased protection.

Global shark populations are declining, with annual deaths from fishing reaching approximately 100 million. The sharks are sought after primarily for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup, a popular delicacy in China and elsewhere in Asia.

Conservation groups argue that CITES proposals to list some 90 species, including the squirrel shark family, would severely restrict trade. If accepted, the proposals would increase the percentage of shark species in the fin trade covered by CITES from about 25% to about 90%, according to WCS.

“What is killing shark populations is overfishing. They have been cunningly labeled as bycatch when in reality they were being targeted,” said Philip Chou, senior director of global policy for conservation group Oceana. “There is a huge active trade and money to be made trading shark meat and there has always been something for their fins.”

Resistance is likely to come from Japan and other East Asian countries, the center of the global fin trade. They argue that trade should be regulated by fisheries boards.

Turtles, snakes, glass frogs and lizards – i are increasingly being targeted by the pet and collector trade – would be given increased protection, as would several species of wood, including African mahogany, which have been decimated by illegal logging.

The United States Association of Reptile Keepers, which advocates responsible private ownership and trade in reptiles and amphibians, said in a statement that “reducing wild populations by restricting captive breeding and legal trade is counterproductive.

There are also controversial proposals to facilitate the Ban on trade in elephant ivory. Zimbabwe, which has threatened to leave CITES, has been pushing to allow its stocks of ivory and elephant skin to be sold and use the money to manage its growing elephant population. But conservation groups and the US are opposed to relaxing the 1989 ivory ban.

“In most countries, elephant ivory markets are nationally banned and the fact that there are ivory stocks out there is very concerning,” said Matthew Strickler of the US Department of the Interior, who will lead the US delegation to CITES. “They certainly don’t want this product to come out and rekindle the demand for more ivory, which we all know is leading to more and more poaching.”

Secretary-General Higuero said there was “no appetite to open the market for the sale of ivory” but the debate at CITES could spark a broader discussion on how to help poor countries fund conservation efforts. Many of those countries, she said, are struggling to manage their elephant populations amid worsening drought and range expansion, which are increasing conflict between elephants and humans.

“We all benefit from the existence of these animals,” she said. “It is therefore a global responsibility to ensure that these developing countries can bear their conservation costs.”


Associated Press writer Patrick Whittle contributed from Portland, Maine.


Follow Michael Casey on Twitter: @mcasey1


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Sarah Y. Kim

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