Illicit Wildife Trade Organized and Dangerous, CITES Told
BANGKOK, Thailand, October 5, 2004 (ENS) - The illegal trafficking of wildlife continues at high levels and involves organized criminal networks, sophisticated poaching and smuggling techniques, fraudulent trade permits, corruption and violence towards enforcement officers, an international group of law enforcement experts told a conference on trade in endangered species here today.
The 13th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) had asked the group to study how effectively the Convention is being enforced and to make recommendations for improvements.
The group includes 20 officials from national CITES management authorities, the CITES Tiger Enforcement Task Force, customs authorities, fishery protection authorities, intelligence agencies, the Interpol Wildlife Crime Working Group, the Lusaka Agreement Task Force police and prosecution and wildlife authorities from around the world.
In many countries, the group reports, the authorities lack the necessary resources and experience to meet the challenge. In addition, there is not enough coordination and information sharing among various enforcement authorities.
"We are in danger of losing the war against wildlife crime, especially for some very rare animals and plants," said CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers, "unless modern professional law enforcement techniques are directed against criminals who care for nothing but profit, who exploit some of the world’s poorest communities and take advantage of periods of civil unrest and instability."
The illegal trade in wildlife remains the second greatest threat to the world’s endangered species after habitat destruction. Many wildlife smugglers deal in products that are worth more, per kilo, than cocaine or heroin.
Shawls made from the fine wool of the Tibetan antelope, for example, can cost over US$15,000 each. The caviar trade is full of organized crime networks.
"Senior enforcement officials seldom attend CITES meetings, and wildlife crime is rarely discussed at international conferences on crime. This must change," said Wijnstekers.
To turn back the tide of illicit wildlife trafficking, the law enforcement group recommends that governments give greater recognition to the seriousness of wildlife crime and that law enforcement authorities give this type of crime a higher priority.
The group says that increases in the status, authority, training and quality of equipment of wildlife law enforcement personnel would do some good, as would more use of and easier access to forensic science.
The needs to be greater international and regional cooperation and better coordination of investigations, the law enforcement group recommends, as well as more use of CITES enforcement task forces.
Sufficient funding is an issue, the law enforcement group recognized, and they suggested increased support to the wildlife enforcement work of the CITES Secretariat, Interpol and the World Customs Organization.
"There is a great deal of excellent work taking place around the world, but it is simply not enough," said Wijnstekers. "I hope that Bangkok will see a real commitment from countries to engage with us more energetically in the constant battle against wildlife criminals."
But conservation groups attending the CITES conference say it began on a sour note when hunting trophies of endangered leopards and black rhinos were approved in committee on Monday.
In Committee I, chaired by Holly Dublin of the IUCN-World Conservation Union, Parties supported a Namibia proposal to increase its annual export quota of leopard hunting trophies and skins from 100 to 250 specimens, as well as a South African proposal to increase its annual export quota from 75 to 150 specimens.
The black rhino, Diceros bicornis, is a critically endangered species. The numbers of black rhino across Africa declined by 90 percent to just 2,410 rhinos in 1995. Improved protection has seen numbers rise to 3,100, but this is still far from the 1970 estimate of 65,000 rhinos.
This is the first time trade in black rhino has been approved since the species was originally listed on Appendix I, a classification under which all commercial trade is prohibited.
Black rhinos are still threatened by poaching to satisfy the illegal trade in rhino horn for Yemeni dagger handles, traditional Chinese medicines, and ornaments.
Namibia and South Africa argue that "surplus" males could be sacrificed from their populations for trophy hunting. Namibia and South Africa have asked for an export quota for five black rhino each.
"We are deeply concerned that trophy hunting quotas for rhinos tentatively have been approved early in the CITES meeting, over the strenuous objections of some CITES Parties and a number of nongovernmental organizations," said Adam Roberts, executive director of the Animal Welfare Institute, a Washington, DC based organization.
"The Species Survival Network, a global coalition of more than 80 organizations representing many millions of concerned citizens, urges Parties opposed to these dangerous decisions to ask for them to be reconsidered when the proposals are revisited by the full CITES plenary," said Roberts. "The only acceptable trade in surplus male black rhinos should be for in situ reintroduction programs to bolster other critically endangered populations in Africa."
Winnie Kiiru of Born Free Foundation in Kenya expressed concern that renewed trophy hunting quotas for rhinos, "would send a horrible message to poachers that the rhino trade is open again."
"One has to ask why the global community would allow Africa's black rhinos to be shot for trophies, while seeking to eradicate trade in horns for traditional medicines or ceremonial purposes," said Kiiru. "If this isn't overturned, rest assured, poaching will escalate across Africa, including in my home country - Kenya. It's quite simple, really, all international trade in black rhinos must be prohibited."
Both Namibia and South Africa argued that trophy hunting was a strategy for dealing with "problem" animals.
Humane Society International Director Michael Kennedy said today that his organization opposes trophy hunting and "does not consider it to be a sound scientific strategy for managing ‘problem’ animals."
"There is no evidence that allowing trophy hunting reduces the numbers of ‘problem’ leopards that are shot in Namibia," Kennedy said. "Instead, the overall number of animals killed increases, and there is a risk that the increased export quotas will take the overall numbers of leopards killed in Namibia and South Africa to unsustainable levels.”
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