By Kate Wong
The fate of elephants, rhinoceroses and other imperiled species could be decided in the coming days at a major meeting on wildlife trade regulation in Bangkok. Beginning March 3, delegates from the 178 countries that have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, dubbed CITES, will gather to consider proposals to increase or decrease protection not only for iconic mammals but also for such organisms as sharks, turtles and timber species.
The summit comes at a time when trade in ivory and other animal parts is exploding, fueled by growing demand from increasingly wealthy Asia, where such products have long been prized for decorative and medicinal uses. Because of this uptick in demand, poaching of some species has reached record highs. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), some 30,000 African elephants a year are being slaughtered for their tusks. Last year 668 rhinos were lost to poachers in South Africa alone—50 percent more than in 2011. And 2013 is set to break the 2012 record, with another 128 rhinos already killed for their horns, which fetch as much as $65,000 per kilogram on the black market–more than diamonds or cocaine. At these poaching rates, Africa’s elephants and rhinos could be gone in a couple decades by some estimates. In 2011 two subspecies, Africa’s western black rhino and the Javan rhinoceros of Vietnam, were declared extinct, mainly due to poaching.
That the CITES meeting is taking place in Thailand is significant. The Asian nation is a major gateway for illicit trade in animals. Every year officials there seize tens of thousands of live animals—from turtles to tigers—from smugglers who stuff them into clothing, suitcases and crates for air transport out of the country. Illegal elephant ivory and rhino horn are routinely seized in large quantities, too.
Thailand also has a burgeoning legal ivory market, thanks to its laws that permit the sale of ivory from domestic elephants. Much of the ivory is sold to foreign tourists in curio shops. Critics charge that criminals exploit the laws that allow this trade to launder illegal ivory from African elephants. Indeed outside pressure on Thailand to ban the ivory trade altogether has been mounting in the days leading up to the CITES meeting. The WWF and wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC recently issued a statement calling for economic sanctions against countries that fail to curb their ivory markets, naming Thailand, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as prime offenders. And on Febuary 27 the WWF presented Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra with a petition to ban the country’s ivory trade altogether. The petition contained more than half a million signatures. The New York Times reports that a statement from Thailand about a shift in its ivory policy is expected at the opening of the CITES gathering.