With the varying list of winning and losing species at last month’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference in Doha, Qatar, the BBC and others asked earlier this week how truly effective CITES is.

While elephants and tigers may have won for now, an initiative to put an end to international trophy hunting and commercial trade in polar bear parts was defeated. CITES also voted down a proposal to ban the hunting of Atlantic bluefin tuna and opted for no protection of four vulnerable species of sharks.

The proposal to protect polar bears was put forward by National Resources Defense Council (or NRDC) lawyers, who asserted the bears are hunted at unsustainably high rates for trophies, pelts, paws and teeth.

“There has been a lot of positive momentum in polar bear conservation recently, this is a real setback,” said Andrew Wetzler, the Director of NRDC’s Endangered Species Project.

A study of the total polar bear population done by the U.S. Geological Survey “conservatively” predicted a decline of over 70% in the next 45 years as global warming literally melts their habitat.

Commerce also trumped science as CITES refused to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna, in spite of receiving reports that defended the research. Bluefin qualifies for the highest level of protection for protected species given its population has declined by 80% since 1970, and continues to plummet due to overfishing and international trade.

The U.S., Norway and Kenya offered outright support for the ban, while the European Union asked that any actions be delayed until May 2011 to provide more time to respond to claims of overfishing.

Japan, which imports 80% of Atlantic bluefin conceded that stocks were in trouble. However, one bluefin can go for $175,000 on the Tokyo fish market, making it a highly desirable commodity. Japan echoed a growing theme that CITES should have no role regulating marine species, and trade quotas should come from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.

Four species of shark — the scalloped hammerhead, oceanic white tip, porbeagle and spiny dogfish — also remain unprotected. “Despite fast declining populations of the ocean’s apex predators, CITES government delegates turned a blind eye to science,” said Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group.  “Four threatened species of sharks were refused protections even though the evidence of international trade's harmful effects was plentiful. Inaction can and will set these sharks on a course toward total population collapse.” The shark trade kills an estimated 73 million sharks annually.

As the BBC article summarizes, “There is a feeling among many conservationists that Doha may have been our last chance to give real, meaningful protection for some species — and that we missed it.

“However, for all its faults, CITES is the one international convention specifically targeted at controlling trade in endangered species, so it is the international legal framework with which we have to work.”

Creative Commons image by Johan Lantz

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