Elephants, rhinos, sharks and manta rays are among the animals that could be getting more international protection at the triennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Polar bears have already lost out, and for animals such as the crocodile the push is actually for fewer restrictions.
CITES (pronounced SITE-eez) meets every three years to discuss how to best regulate trade in plants and animals to ensure the survival of more than 35,000 species. CITES delegates represent 178 governments, as well as businesses, non-governmental organizations and groups speaking for indigenous peoples.
Much of CITES’ work involves regulating trade to ensure that commercial demand for wildlife does not threaten their survival. Governments and nongovernmental organizations submitted 70 proposals for this week’s meeting in Bangkok to increase or decrease the level of protection for plants or animals.
Here are some of the species that have delegates’ attention:
The manta ray, which lives in tropical and temperate waters around the world, is classified as vulnerable, a step below endangered, and its numbers are believed to be declining.
Environmental groups want regulation of cross-border commercial trade, noting that manta gills are used in some medicinal elixirs, especially in China, and demand is growing. The species is also especially vulnerable to being accidentally caught by fishermen. Manta rays have commercial value simply by living in the wild, since it is a thrill for divers to see them.
Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador are the official proponents of imposing regulated trade on the species. Multibillionaire Virgin Group boss Richard Branson is a backer of a conservation campaign called "Manta Ray of Hope."
There is widespread support for putting three species of shark — the oceanic whitetip, the hammerhead and the porbeagle — on the list for regulated trade. All three are under severe threat because of the voracious market for shark fin, an expensive delicacy in Asia that is used to make soup.
More than two dozen species of shark are officially endangered, and more than 100 others considered either vulnerable or near threatened. Like manta rays, sharks are seen as valuable to nations with dive tourism industries, with island territories such as the Bahamas, Fiji and the Maldives deriving major benefits. Eleven nations, including Brazil, the U.S. and Egypt, proposed regulating trade in the species.
The non-profit Pew Environment Group says Hong Kong is the world’s biggest shark fin market, with 83 countries exporting more than 10.3 million kilograms (22.7 million pounds) of shark fin product there in 2011.
Trade in most species of rhinos is already banned, yet poaching and smuggling are skyrocketing, as demand for rhino horn as a traditional medicine grows in East and Southeast Asia.
Up to about five years ago, about 10 rhinos a year were being poached in Africa. Last year, some 668 of the beasts were poached in South Africa alone, and the rate seems to be increasing. The trend risks reversing some major successes; white rhino populations have risen from about 2,000 in 1973 to close to 20,000 last year.
CITES’ focus is on strengthening law enforcement where rhinos live, and on pressuring countries where rhino horn is sold to crack down. Kenya proposed that a temporary ban be put on hunting trophy white rhinos exported from South Africa and Swaziland, but critics suggested this would discourage South African programs that have been successfully increased the animal’s population.
Several reports presented at the CITES meeting warned that the illegal ivory trade is devastating Africa’s elephant populations. An estimated 17,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2011 in African areas monitored by conservationists.
The causes of the crisis include corruption and lack of law and order in Africa; underequipped and undertrained law enforcement units facing well-armed gangs; and laxness in regulating the ivory trade in the East and Southeast Asian countries that are the main destinations.
CITES is promoting measures to help law enforcement in Africa, but is also threatening to punish eight nations — including meeting host Thailand — that they accuse of failing to adequately crack down on the ivory trade. Those nations will face trade sanctions if they fail to take action to curb illegal ivory sales by next year.
CITES rejected a U.S. proposal to ban cross-border trade of polar bears and their parts. The U.S. had argued for tougher restrictions on international trade because climate change is shrinking the animals’ habitat. Opponents of the U.S. proposal, led by groups representing Canada’s indigenous Inuit people, contended that polar bear populations are not declining, and that Canada — home to about two-thirds of the bears’ estimated 28,000 worldwide population — is ensuring that the hunting is sustainable. The Inuits said their way of life would be threatened by a ban. Russia had endorsed the U.S. proposal, while Canada was joined in opposition by some conservation organizations.
The CITES meeting agreed to a proposal from Ecuador to ease controls on its national population of vicuna, an animal native to the Andes and a relative of the llama. Ecuadorean vicuna are banned from cross-border trade, but the country seeks to have the animal "downlisted" so it can engage in regulated trade in its wool, as some neighboring countries are allowed to do. Vicuna wool is harvested without killing the animals. There is a thriving wool industry in Peru, where the population has recovered after falling to low levels in the 1960s.
The U.S., China and Vietnam have proposed trade restrictions for 44 species of freshwater turtles. In most cases, their populations have shown a heavy decline in recent years, with many sold for meat in China and others for the pet trade, and some facing degraded habitats. There are more than 300 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises worldwide, half of them under threat of extinction, with the more than 90 species in Asia particular vulnerable. The U.S. is seeking to have several of its native species for which trading demand is high be put on the list of species in which trade is regulated.
Colombia and Thailand are seeking to lower restrictions and allow regulated cross-border trade of three protected species of crocodile — the American crocodile, saltwater crocodile and Siamese crocodile.
Thailand farms its species in large quantities, but the number of specimens in the wild is small. Thailand has said it would impose a zero quota for wild specimens but wildlife experts say its plans don’t detail how that would be enforced.