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CONSERVATION: Whales, Elephants Saved From Commercial Killers

Ranjit Devraj

BANGKOK, Oct 12 2004 (IPS) - The world’s ‘flagship species’ on land and sea, whales and elephants, won a reprieve on Tuesday from commercial exploitation at a major conservation conference in Thailand’s capital.

As the 13th Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) entered its 10th day, Japan was thwarted once again in its persistent efforts to convince member states that the time was right to lift the protection of minke whales with parties voting overwhelmingly to defeat the move.

”Japan used information which was wrong, plain wrong in its efforts to down list the minke whale,” Vassili Papastavrou, marine mammal expert for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) told IPS in an interview after the voting.

For example, said Papastavrou, Japan’s claim that there were one million minke whales was not only based on outdated information but also included a population of 760,000 Antarctic minkes that actually belonged to a completely different species from the ones it wants to hunt in the northern seas.

Papastavrou said he expected Japan, as in past meetings of the CITES, to bring up modified proposals at the plenary. ”But given the lack of support for the proposal, Japan is sure to be defeated again,” he said.

The Japanese were lobbying the 166 member nations of CITES to have the minke whale down listed from CITES Appendix I to Appendix II.

CITES, a U.N. treaty that has been in effect for nearly 30 years, subjects international trade of 30,000 species of animals and plants, including 49 tree species, to varying degrees of control through listing in its three Appendices according to the degree of threat and protection required.

Appendix I applies the most stringent controls on species threatened with extinction, Appendix II regulates trade in species that could potentially lead to extinction and Appendix III includes species listed by an ”individual” country in an effort to enlist international cooperation to control trade from their country.

But a CITES member would need a two-thirds majority if it wants its proposal to downgrade a species’ listing to be approved by the conference of parties. The voting is by secret ballot.

Jubilant at the results of the voting, Masayuki Sakamoto, a Japanese lawyer and secretary general of the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society said it was time the Japanese government began to seriously consider issues related to ecology and enforcement of conservation laws.

”We have to recognise that most of the areas of the high seas do not belong to any specific country and that the species in them are part of the world’s common heritage,” Sakamoto who also chairs the Asian Conservation Alliance Task Force said.

Sakamoto described the Japanese proposal as an underhand attempt to undermine conservation and one that only took into account the interests of the whaling industry, which has been trying to promote consumption of whale meat through propaganda. ”The fact is that the present generation of young Japanese dislike whale meat and attempts by the government to promote meat obtained from so-called scientific research whaling have failed,” Sakamoto told IPS.

The Japan Whaling Association (JWA) which had a strong presence at the CITES meeting released leaflets that talked about the ”splendid Japanese whale cooking culture which fully utilises the whole body including meat, blubber, skin and innards,” which was ”unparalleled in the world.”

According to the JWA whales threatened marine resources by eating up between 300 to 500 million tonnes of fish and krill each year including quantities of anchovy off the Japanese coast. ”It is now an issue of competition between whales and human beings over marine living resources,” it said in the pamphlet.

But Sakamoto dismissed the arguments as propaganda saying that it took 20 years of a ban on the hunting of whales by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to wean Japanese away from eating whale meat and that reintroducing it could be disastrous from the point of view of conservation.

Sakamoto was even more ecstatic about CITES rejection of a proposal made by Namibia demanding to be allowed limited trade in ivory and elephant products of which Japan was a major destination.

”We have to be very careful before we can consider resumption of trading in ivory and the rejection of Namibia’s proposal shows the growing awareness of ground realities in allowing additional trade in ivory,” said Sakamoto referring to the glaring existence of vast illegal outlets in cities such as Osaka.

The ivory trade has always been a hot topic at CITES. In Bangkok, Namibia proposed to trade a series of elephant products derived from its population, including an annual export quota of 2,000 kilogrammes of raw ivory, worked ivory products and elephant leather and hair for commercial purposes.

African elephants were placed on the Appendix I protection list of CITES between 1989 to 1997. But between 1997 and 2000, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe were allowed by CITES to carry out limited sales of ivory to Japan, one of the biggest ivory consumer nations.

In Japan today, the main volume of ivory trade is no longer in intricate works of art but in signature seals known as ‘hankos’ in Japanese – which are used to transact everyday business.

”There is no reason why Japanese have to stick to ivory to make ‘hankos’ and they can easily use other material such as wood, metal or plastic except that merchants and traders try to promote the idea that there is no substitute for ivory,” he said adding that many Japanese buyers are unaware that these ivory seals spell death for elephants.

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