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WWF: Big Wins for Conservation at CITES

Bangkok - This year's meeting of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) has achieved significant results for conservation, with the adoption of better trade controls to protect African elephants, great white sharks and other threatened species.

World Wildlife Fund sees one of the biggest victories as the adoption of an unprecedented continent-wide action plan to crack down on unregulated domestic ivory markets in Africa. The plan - which commits all African countries with domestic ivory markets to either strictly control the trade or shut it down altogether - should reduce the poaching of thousands of elephants killed each year to feed these markets.

"This action plan for the first time requires every African country with an internal ivory market to pass legislation, beef up law enforcement and launch public awareness campaigns to protect its elephants from uncontrolled ivory sales," said Ginette Hemley, vice president for species conservation at WWF. "This is a historic agreement and WWF is committed to helping African countries implement it."

The international community also voted to allow Namibia to begin non-commercial trade in carved-ivory "ekipas," traditional jewelry crafted by two ethnic communities from elephants that died naturally. The vote allows the ekipas to be exported from Namibia by visitors as personal effects, but not for resale.

"The trade will be strictly non-commercial and on such a small scale that every piece of ivory will be individually marked and tracked," Hemley said. "We believe that Namibia has done an excellent job of protecting its wildlife and has strong controls in place to ensure that the trade won't lead to poaching."

With the listing of the humphead wrasse, a giant coral reef fish, and the great white shark on CITES Appendix II, these commercially exploited species have been granted a greater level of regulation and protection. Both species reproduce slowly and suffer from unsustainable fishing practices. WWF believes that better trade controls will prove crucial to avoiding further depletion of their populations. In particular, the humphead wrasse listing will assist developing countries in ensuring that the trade in this species is sustainable and benefits the livelihoods of local coastal communities.

CITES member countries also voted to prohibit commercial trade of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin by including it on Appendix I, where it joins species like great apes and big cats, which are so endangered that no international commercial trade is allowed.

"Listing the Irrawaddy dolphin on CITES is a crucial step to saving the species," said Karen Steuer, senior policy adviser to WWF. "The species is highly charismatic and easy to train, which has Asian water parks and dolphin shows clamoring to buy them. But Irrawaddy dolphins are so endangered, particularly by drowning in fishing gear, that any removal of the animals from the wild is a threat to the species."

Minke whales remain on Appendix I, after CITES members defeated Japan's proposals to downlist them to Appendix II and ease the way for the resumption of commercial whaling.

"The minke whale proposal was a disingenuous attempt by Japan to subvert the International Whaling Commission's authority over commercial whaling by allowing trade in whale meat, which the other CITES members resoundingly rejected," Steuer said.

Ramin, an Asian rainforest tree, was added to Appendix II. Bigleaf mahogany received similar protection two years ago and like mahogany, ramin's survival in the wild is threatened by illegal logging and uncontrolled trade. Ramin is widely sold in the United States as baby cribs, picture frames, moldings and pool cues. It is found in orangutan and tiger habitat and its listing on Appendix II will indirectly benefit these and other endangered species.

"CITES is increasingly moving to regulate trade in species more commonly thought of as commodities than wildlife, such as commercially valuable fish and timber species," Hemley said. "The overwhelming support given to these proposals is a positive indication that governments recognize the importance of sustainable trade and the resulting benefits to people and their livelihoods."

Action was also taken to improve conservation and control of trade in the saiga antelope, sturgeon, Asian big cats and great apes. Asian yew trees, the source of a key ingredient for the cancer drug Taxol and generic equivalents, were also given trade protection under CITES to ensure a continued supply of the drug.