Great White Sharks, Others Win Global Protection

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
October 15, 2004
Big fish loomed large at the 13th meeting of the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
(CITES), which closed this week in Bangkok, Thailand.

The annual global wildlife summit, which agreed to new controls to prevent illegal trafficking in endangered species, paid special attention this year to marine fish and commercially prized trees.

Elephants, whales, and other charismatic mammals which appear regularly on the summit's agenda also featured.

CITES is an international agreement between 166 governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their species' survival. Countries that are party to the agreement have agreed to enforce its provisions through permits, policing, and monitoring. The Fish and Willdife Service enforces CITES in the U.S.

The great white shark, the world's largest predatory fish, gained CITES protection for the first time at this year's conference. Delegates heard that increased demand for the shark's jaws, teeth, and fins was decimating already vulnerable populations. Great white jaws can fetch up to U.S. $10,000 each.

The shark was given Appendix II status, which means a permit is needed to trade in its parts.

"This listing will help us manage the trade that currently threatens the great white shark by requiring data showing that harvests are not a detriment to the species," said Ramon Bonfil, a shark specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York.

The humphead wrasse was granted similar status. The giant coral reef fish, which can grow to 400 pounds (190 kilograms), is sold as a delicacy in Southeast Asia. The wrasse's lips are especially sought after, and the fish fetches up to U.S. $290 per pound ($130 per kilogram).

"Humphead wrasse is an increasingly popular luxury item in restaurants in Hong Kong and China, and the trade—both legal and illegal —has become unsustainable," said Clarus Chu, of the Worldwide Wildlife Fund.

Caviar Restrictions

Another luxury-food fish to benefit from tighter trade controls is the sturgeon, caught for their caviar in the Caspian Sea. Delegates voted for rules that require all caviar to be exported in the same year that it's processed.

The move closes a loophole that allows fraudulent traders to declare their caviar was caught the previous year and so avoid quota limits. Willem Wijnstekers, secretary-general of CITES, says the new measures suggest the convention can help to restore overfished commercial fish stocks to sustainable levels.

Another marine species, the rare Irrawaddy dolphin of Southeast Asia, was transferred from Appendix II to Appendix I. This forbids all commercial trade.

Minke Whales

Meanwhile, Japan's bid to ease controls on protection of the minke whale, by "downlisting" the species to Appendix II, which would allow trade in its meat to resume, was rejected by the conference.

The minke whale was hunted almost to extinction during the last century, but since it became a protected species, numbers are thought to have recovered to around one million.

Besides marine animals, commercially prized trees, particularly those with medicinal properties, emerged from the summit with enhanced conservation status.

Members voted to regulate global trade in agarwood, a resin found in two types of evergreen tropical trees.

The resin, produced by the trees in response to a fungal infection, is traditionally used in Asia to combat disease and in religious ceremonies. It's also used to make expensive perfumes.

Conservationists say illegal harvesting in countries including Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand is subjecting agarwood-producing trees to unsustainable pressures.

Yew Tree

Protection has also been tightened for the Asian yew, the main source of the anticancer drug paclitaxel, sold under the brand name Taxol.

Similarly, trade restrictions now apply to hoodia, a cactus native to southern Africa. Africa's Bushman people traditionally use the plant to suppress their appetite during long treks and there are fears it could be wiped out in the search for new anti-obesity drugs.

Ramin, a tropical hardwood tree, has been added to Appendix II. The tree, found in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, has become the target of illegal logging. Resulting rain forest loss is seen as a significant threat to the orangutan in Indonesian Borneo.

"This decision should help block the flow of money to the pockets of the illegal timber mafia," said a spokesman for Telapak, an environmental nonprofit group based in Bogor, Indonesia. "We urge the CITES parties to take all necessary measures to enforce the new controls."

Elephants and Rhinos

By contrast, there has been a slight relaxation of CITES restrictions for two higher profile species of conservation concern. While a request from Namibia to be allowed to sell elephant ivory internationally was blocked, Namibian tribes are now permitted to trade locally in carved ivory trinkets.

Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland, where black rhinoceros numbers have increased, also won a partial lifting of the ban on hunting the rhinos. Each country can export five black rhino trophies, though cash raised must be plowed back into conservation programs.

Overall the CITES conference sought to balance local economic realities with the need for more effective protection of endangered species.

"The Bangkok conference has crafted solutions to meet the particular needs of many wildlife species that are either endangered or that could become so if traded unsustainably," Secretary-General Wijnstekers said.

"These solutions seek to conserve the Earth's rich heritage of biological diversity while supporting the sustainable development of local communities and national economies."

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