Representatives from 171 nations, monitored by a small army of wildlife advocates, began debating dozens of sharply contested measures Sunday on how best to regulate the global trade in wildlife."You are making policy for the biodiversity of the future," Gerda Verburg, chairwoman and Dutch agriculture and nature minister, told some 2,500 delegates from the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as CITES.
Decimated by over-exploitation and smuggling, hundreds of endangered species ranging from orchids to elephants will get a hearing during the two-week gathering in The Hague.
Orangutans sold on the black market as exotic pets, wild tiger parts ground up into Chinese medicines, sharks scalped to make soup, rare hardwoods hewn into designer coffee tables -- the global appetite for wild flora and fauna is seemingly inexhaustible.
The world's only international body with the power to slap moratoriums on the sale of plants and animals is also considering a controversial shift in "strategic vision" that would take the impact on human communities into account.
During its first meeting in three years, CITES will vote on measures that could determine the survival of several species of gazelle and shark, Asian tigers, Ugandan leopards, great apes, and a handful of hardwood trees in Latin America.
In some cases, safeguards that helped plants and animals recover from near extinction may be eased or removed.
Among the most contested measures is a proposal for a 20-year ban of ivory trade favored by 20 African nations, led by Kenya and Mali.
Even before the opening ceremony, the Standing Committee of CITES authorized on Saturday the sale of 60 tonnes of African ivory to Japan, a decision condemned by some conservation groups as an encouragement to poaching.
Legal and illegal trade in wild fauna and flora generates tens of billions of dollars (euros) in revenue every year, even after commercial fishing and the timber industry are set aside.
In the coming days delegates will debate the wisdom of seeking a middle ground between safeguarding wildlife and the safeguarding the livelihood of local populations who exploit it.
Decisions on extending trade protection to a species "should take into account potential impacts on the livelihood of the poor," CITES Secretary General Williem Wijnstekers said at the opening ceremony.
"These changes are long overdue. It is one of the reasons we are failing to be effective," said Juan Carlos Vasquez, Legal Officer for CITES. The disproportionate focus on big mammals -- what Vasquez calls "charismatic species" -- leads to "choices that are more emotional than rational," he said.
But some non-governmental conservation groups argue that the shift would water down the convention's original mission.
It "may actually weaken or even contradict the principle role and primary goal of the convention, which is the protection against over-exploitation through international trade," said Lynn Levine of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
CITES is also seeking to play a larger role in protecting species exploited in the commercial fisheries and timber industries, "long considered off-limits to the Convention," Wijnskekers said.
Poaching and over-exploitation are not the only threat to endangered species. Shrinking habitats, pollution and more recently global warming have all played a role.
CITES came into force in 1975, and currently covers almost 33,000 species, more than 80 percent of them in the plant kingdom.
Animals and plants can be recommended by individual countries for inclusion in one of the three appendices depending on the level of protection needed. Approval requires a two-thirds majority.
The sawtooth shark, whose numbers have been decimated by demand for its much-prized fins, for example, stands a good chance of being included in "Appendix I" along side some 530 other animals already protected by total or near-total bans, conservation groups say.
Two other species of the fearsome ocean predator -- the porbeagle shark and the spiny dogfish -- have been nominated for membership in the less restrictive "Appendix II" category, which requires scientific certification and certification of origin to be traded.
Appendix III applies to species that are protected within the borders of one or more countries.
Copyright © 2007 AFP