Mon, Oct 04, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Endangered species' futures traded away

Dirty tricks, corruption and exploitation continue as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meets in Bangkok

By John Vidal  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Last week US President George W. Bush held up a rifle at his ranch and declared that he was a conservationist. The man who wants to open the Arctic to oil companies and who has ripped up more than a hundred environmental protection laws was unapologetic.

"There's a big difference between conservationists and preservationists," he said. "Conservationists care. And we take action."

The gun clubs, fur trappers, turkey shooters and elk stalkers of America loved it. The president, they said, had claimed the high ground from the feared and hated animal welfare and environment groups -- the preservationists -- but he was also implicitly backing governments and industries wanting an end to animal protection.

Bush had highlighted a schism in the global wildlife debate between those who say that endangered wildlife is best protected when it is traded "sustainably" and those who argue that international trade neither helps people nor protects species. The division will be exposed this week in Bangkok at the annual meeting of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Officials from more than 160 countries, representatives of more than 500 pressure groups and up to 10,000 observers will meet to debate whether to add some 100 plant and animal species to the 34,000 already listed.

Illegal wildlife trafficking, with an estimated value of billions of dollars a year, is a massive industry. But while decisions on how to police this are theoretically made on the basis of science and rational debate, the reality is that dirty tricks, the political manipulation of poor countries by rich, widespread lobbying and downright corruption actually decide which species get protection and which animal products continue to yield legal profits.

The two-week meeting will see ritual battles over ivory exports and minke whales, and more protection will probably be given to great apes, some sharks, yellow-crested cockatoos, Irawaddy dolphins and some snails and turtles.

"Trade has been the foremost factor in the decimation of scores of species ranging from tigers to cod," says Richard Leakey, who, as head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, has fought for years against the ivory trade. He deplores southern African countries' attempts to reopen it.

He argues that even a limited version of the trade would damage wildlife and encourage poaching without relieving poverty, as the ivory industry promises.

"Sustainable use" arguments, he says, sound reasonable -- but there is a big difference between ecological and economic sustainability. He says that economic priorities will always take precedence.

Leakey is backed by groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the UK's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Wildaid, Greenpeace, the World Society for the Protection of Animals and Born Free, all with large memberships and the resources to lobby governments. More than 70 will work together in Bangkok in a global coalition known as the Species Survival Network.

"There is more and more frustration within non-government groups about the sustainability argument," says Barbara Maas, chief executive of Care for the Wild International.

"The idea that it helps people is fashionable, but it doesn't stand up. It does not do anything for biodiversity or species," she said.

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