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ENVIRONMENT: Endangered Species Seek Assistance at CITES Meeting

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, May 25 1998 (IPS) - Endangered species ranging from snails to elephants are seeking refuge at a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting that got underway Monday in Venezuela.

Some 160 government officials and experts are gathering through Friday in the 14th Fauna Committee meeting to seek systems for sustainable management of endangered species.

CITES, which operates as part of the United Nations system since 1973, has been ratified by 143 countries, and lays down the guidelines for the sustainable management and international monitoring of endangered wild species of flora and fauna.

The Switzerland-based world body’s last Conference of Parties was held in June 1997 in Zimbabwe, and the next one is to take place in Indonesia in the year 2000.

In 1996, the World Conservation Union – also based in Switzerland – determined that 25 percent of species of mammals and amphibians, 11 percent of birds, 20 percent of reptiles and 34 percent of fish were endangered, while five to 14 percent of those species were threatened by extinction or already extinct.

The Worldwatch Institute warned last weekend in Washington that today’s extinction rate of species of fauna was from 100 to 1,000 times the normal rate, in a process only comparable to the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

But, Worldwatch stressed, human beings are responsible for what is happening today.

This week’s Fauna Committee gathering will discuss “regional management plans” for conserving sea turtles, Obdulio Menghi, CITES’ scientific coordinator, told IPS.

Sea turtles, whose shells have turned them into commercial targets, are included on CITES’ Appendix I – a list of endangered species in which trade is banned.

Also on that appendix are species of monkeys, apes, lemurs, large whales, cheetahs, leopards, tigers, rhinoceroses, the Asian elephant, birds of prey, cranes, pheasants, parrots, crocodiles, iguanas, the giant salamander and shellfish.

Venezuela’s Mirna Quero, the Fauna Committee’s representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, told IPS that of all countries in the Caribbean basin – one of the main habitats of sea turtles – only Cuba and Mexico have sustainable management plans for the turtles.

Apparently connected to its political gripes with Cuba, the United States is seeking to block the Caribbean nation’s plans to sell its stock of Hawskbill Turtle shells in accordance with a management plan agreed on with CITES.

Latin American and Caribbean nations, meanwhile, maintain that a global – rather than regional, as proposed by several CITES members – plan to protect sea turtles is indispensable.

Representatives of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are also participating in this week’s meeting, but with a single voice.

The application of a plan to monitor trade in sturgeon will also be studied in Caracas. The species was added to Appendix II – endangered species in which regulated trade is allowed – last year, due to the greedy demand for its eggs (caviar).

Menghi, an Argentine zoologist, said sturgeons were new to the club of endangered species. He added that monitoring trade in caviar is particularly difficult, because the tiny roe are easily smuggled.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new countries that cropped up on the banks of the Caspian Sea found a spate of priorities on which to concentrate other than the environment, which only aggravated the problem.

Listed on Appendix II are species of primates, members of the cat family, otters, whales, dolphins, porpoises, birds of prey, land tortoises, the black swan, birds of paradise and snails.

A third, highly controversial aspect underlined by Menghi is the farming in captivity of endangered species for commercial uses. “Rules acceptable to all must be defined,” he stressed.

Wild animal farms have all the ingredients for becoming a North- South point of contention. The developing South boasts three- quarters of the planet’s biodiversity, while consumption – of endangered species as well – is concentrated in the industrialised North.

The farming of wild species under CITES control could threaten the South’s hold on biodiversity, while the preservation of species will be complicated by the growing difficulty in identifying specimens raised in the wild, which could be presented as ranch-raised.

One of the questions on the agenda in Caracas is a universal system for marking animals raised in captivity with microchips. But the South is opposed to that system due to its high cost, and because it would favour the installation of ranches in countries of the North. “The microchips cannot be imposed as a universal system of marking due to their cost,” said Menghi.

He added that zoologists maintain that wild animal farms “fulfill no function in managing endangered species,” and that they are an answer to commercial, rather than ecological, demands.

Another novel issue to be discussed by the Fauna Committee this week is the need to control the transfer of species outside of their native habitats, due to the possible impact on the new ecosystems.

Several Latin American countries, such as Venezuela, are eager to exploit the commercial potential of species such as ostriches in controlled settings like ranches, and some sectors are lobbying heavily against the restrictions on introducing new species.

The beaver, introduced into Argentina, and the European wild boar have caused problems in wilderness areas of Latin America.

Menghi warned that great care was needed in artificially transferring species from one habitat to another for commercial ends, not only due to the impact on the new ecosystem, but also because new species can put an end to the use of animals that are already being exploited, and even push them into extinction.

He cited the massive influx of sheep into South America several centuries ago, which displaced species already raised there like the vicuna and the guanaco.

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