Defenders View: Curbing the Harmful Trade in Wildlife

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© Krista Schlyer

© Krista Schlyer

What do polar bears, sharks, tree frogs, bluefin tuna and iguanas have in common? All of these creatures—and several others—will be major topics of discussion at a March conference on international trade in wildlife. With a little luck—and a push by Defenders of Wildlife, its supporters and allies—these imperiled animals will receive additional worldwide protections at this meeting.

Once every three years, representatives gather from the 175 nations that have signed on to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Although little-known outside conservation circles, CITES is a crucial mechanism for protecting imperiled plants and animals by regulating the trade of these species. Why is CITES important? Because, in addition to global warming, habitat loss, pollution and other environmental threats, many species are imperiled by international commerce.

Every year, for example, hundreds of polar bear skins and other body parts are exported from Arctic countries to importers in Japan, China and Europe. Vast numbers of hammerhead sharks are killed just for their fins, which are cut off and sold to make sharkfin soup. Tree frogs from Central America are being over-collected for the pet trade. Iguanas from Guatemala and Honduras are also traded for their meat and as pets, and pink and red corals all over the world are being depleted for use as jewelry and decorations. And the northern bluefin tuna has suffered a drastic population decline due to over-exploitation for trade, mainly to Japan.

In October the Obama administration—responding in part to the enthusiastic urging of tens of thousands of Defenders' members—proposed that CITES member nations increase protections for polar bears by moving them from Appendix II to Appendix I. At the same time, sharks, tree frogs, iguanas, corals and northern bluefin tuna were also proposed by the United States or other CITES member nations to be listed either in Appendix I or II.  

Species listed in CITES Appendix I are those considered to be threatened with extinction. International trade in Appendix I species is allowed only in noncommercial circumstances, such as for scientific purposes and personal hunting trophies (hunting trophies are, however, subject to national laws—and currently the United States bans polar bear trophy imports, a ban Defenders has fought successfully to keep in place). CITES Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but for which commercial trade must be regulated to avoid overharvesting and future jeopardy.

CITES delegates will be meeting in Doha, Qatar, in March to consider these proposals. Two-thirds of the parties present and voting at the convention must vote in favor for these strengthened protections to be adopted. A delegation from Defenders will travel to the conference and engage with conservation allies in coordinated advocacy campaigns to help strengthen the protections for these endangered species.

Our task will not be easy. Canada, for example, is opposed to additional protections for polar bears. We will need all the help we can get to convince our neighbor to the north—as well as the other CITES parties—and win the vote in Doha. Help save polar bears by joining a letter campaign targeted at key Canadian officials and learn more about CITES.

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