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Global Law Enforcement Must Step Up to Stop Wildlife Trafficking

By Charlene Porter | Staff Writer | 04 March 2013
Close-up of polar bear stuffed toy holding sign saying "Please save us! Vote Yes to Appendix I" (Courtesy of IISD)

The polar bear preservation lobby is using a variety of strategies to promote conservation of the Arctic creatures.

Washington — Trafficking in wildlife is becoming a major criminal enterprise. The United States is working with other governments to identify ways to improve the international law enforcement response and protect endangered plants and animals.

The director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Daniel Ashe, explained the need for stronger enforcement March 4 in a briefing with reporters at the beginning of the conference on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) getting under way in Bangkok.

Speaking as head of the U.S. delegation to the CITES conference, Ashe said adopting international regulations for species protection is just one step, which must be followed by effective enforcement.

"How can we provide appropriate assistance so that countries, particularly developing countries, will have the law enforcement capacity, the management capacity, to ensure that these provisions are carried out?" Ashe asked. He said this is an important question being discussed by representatives of the 178 nations that are parties to the convention.

The CITES meeting began March 3 with CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon telling the delegates, "We know the way, but we need the collective will." He spoke to about 2,000 delegates representing member nations, nongovernmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations.

Effective enforcement is one key activity to protect endangered species, Ashe said, but so is public education. Demand for products made from endangered species is what drives the slaughter of elephants for their ivory tusks, or the hunt for tiger pelts and bones. Ashe said better educating the public about the harm caused by consumption of these products is another important step in combating the trafficking.

The bones of the tiger, for example, are thought to have great healing powers in some cultures. Ashe said that belief can be changed. "We have worked effectively to develop education campaigns that there are modern medicines, proven medicines, that are much more effective in dealing with the same maladies."

CITES already extends protections to about 5,000 animal species and 29,000 plants. Proposals on the agenda for the two-week Bangkok meeting focus on additional protections for elephants, rhinos, polar bears, sharks, turtles and tortoises. Those last are among the most endangered class of animal on Earth, and the United States joins China and Vietnam in proposals to step up protections to help their survival.

The meeting agenda, which Ashe described as one of the largest in the 40-year history of the convention, includes proposals for protections of several species of sharks. Ashe said protecting marine species is especially difficult because the animals migrate widely through the territorial waters of many nations.

Despite that difficulty, Ashe said, protection of marine fisheries is a "particular priority and an important goal." Regional fisheries management organizations already in existence, Ashe said, could provide the mechanisms to "regulate trade and enforce the harvest requirements."

Regarding broader issues to be considered at the CITES conference, Ashe said the United States is also advocating that the polar bear be placed in the most restrictive classification of the CITES treaty, which would halt any commercial trade in polar bear parts. Though climate change and the resulting diminution of its Arctic sea ice habitat are likely the greatest causes of decline of this species, Ashe said ending any trade would help preserve the species.

But the U.S. delegation head predicts the polar bear proposal will be among the most controversial issues of the CITES meeting because the countries with territory in the range of this animal do not agree that stopping the trade is necessary. The United States and Russia are in favor of restrictions, while Greenland and Canada are against them. Norway is the only other country in polar bear territory, and Ashe said its position is "somewhere in the middle."