Some of the world's imperiled animals, including sharks, manta rays,
rhinoceroses, turtles and elephants -- traded for body parts to make soup, medicines and other goods -- received new protections from an international convention that concluded Thursday.
Five species of sharks and two types of mantas were added to a global list of threatened animals whose commercial trade is regulated. Also approved were steps to enforce bans on the trade of endangered rhinos and elephants and new efforts to protect 47 species -- mostly Asian -- of turtles and tortoises.
These measures, proposed by the U.S. government, won passage from a group of 178 countries that belong to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), meeting this year in Bangkok. The group, begun in 1973, meets every two to three years to decide which animals are imperiled enough to warrant either a ban or a limit on their trade.
"This was a landmark meeting. We had a lot of gains," says Ginette Hemley of the World Wildlife Fund, an environmental group that monitored the talks. She says illegal wildlife trade, valued at $7.8 billion to $10 billion annually, is "now recognized as a serious crime."
In parts of Africa, she says, trades in ivory from elephant tusks are used to finance insurgency groups that destabilize governments. She says the horns of rhinos are prized, especially in Thailand, because of the "mistaken belief they cure cancer and hangovers." Her group says poachers killed a record 668 South African rhinos last year.
CITES voted to require the eight countries where the most ivory and rhino horns are illegally traded (China, Kenya, Malaysia, the Philippines, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda and Vietnam) to boost enforcement or risk sanctions. They took similar steps with Vietnam and Mozambique, the largest traders of rhino horns. Unless these countries improve, they could be barred from trading any wildlife with other CITES members.
"The shark proposals were probably the most significant advancement," says Dan Ashe, who heads the Fish and Wildlife Service, which led the U.S. delegation. He says they're the first CITES protections for sharks that are traded in large volumes, often for their meat and their use in Asian shark-fin soup.
The five protected shark species include the oceanic whitetip, scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, smooth hammerhead and the porbeagle.
Sharks and manta rays, whose gill plates are sold as a purifying tonic, are vulnerable to overfishing, because they are slow to mature and have few offspring.
The only major U.S. proposal that didn't succeed, Ashe says, was an effort to ban the commercial trade of polar bears, which are hunted for their skins, claws and teeth. He says climate change, notably the melting of Arctic sea ice, is the primary reason for their endangerment, but trade has become an increasing problem. He says Russia supported a trade ban, but Canada and Greenland did not.
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