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In London, Prince Charles and global heavyweights take on poaching

World leaders meeting in London have agreed to combat the illegal wildlife trade. They are particularly concerned about the plight of elephants, rhinos and tigers, prized, respectively, for their tusks, horns and skins.

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World wakes up to illegal wildlife trade

At a summit in London Thursday, the representatives of 46 countries agreed to new measures to combat the poaching of endangered species and trafficking of the body parts of rare animals.

Early Thursday, Britain's Prince Charles led calls from the representatives of 46 countries to sign a far-reaching declaration on tackling the illegal wildlife trade. In his keynote speech at a conference for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES), Prince Charles told delegates - including the leaders of Botswana, Chad, Gabon and Tanzania - that poaching in some countries, mainly in Africa and Asia, had reached "unimaginable heights." He said international leaders had reached out to him for help.

"The situation they described was indeed dire," Charles said. "Organized gangs, terrorist groups and militia were slaughtering ever greater numbers of elephants for their ivory and rhinoceros for their horns," he added. "Most threatened of all, they said, is the elephant - an integral part of the ecological and social fabric of the African continent and a keystone species."

The think tank Chatham House estimates the value of illegal wildlife trade at $10 billion (7 billion euros) annually. Adopted in 1973 and signed by 178 countries, CITES limits sales of 4,500 species and forbids commerce in more than 600, including apes, turtles and crocodiles.

'Global problem'

In Africa, the number of rhinoceroses killed rose 43 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), despite a ban in effect since 1977. South Africa, home to about 80 percent of all the world's rhinos, reported that more than 1,000 were killed last year.

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that the number of wild tigers has dropped from 100,000 in 1900 to about 3,200 at present. Experts estimate that Africa's elephant population has dropped below 500,000 on a continent where several million had roamed in the mid-1900s. Despite a 1989 ban on ivory sales, trafficking has doubled since 2007 and more than tripled since 1998, according to a report released last March on the sidelines of a CITES conference.

In his opening remarks, British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the illegal trade a "global problem" and said he had seen evidence that terrorist groups benefitted from it. Hague seeks a declaration that would commit countries to treating the poaching and sales of protected animals and their parts "as serious organized crimes in the same category as drugs, arms and people trafficking."

By the numbers

The IUCN's latest "Red List of Threatened Species" includes 11,212 animals. A breakdown of the IUCN data showed that extinction threatens one in four mammal species, one of every eight birds and more than one in three amphibians.

Nor are ocean animals safe from illegal (and legal) human activities. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, fishers kill more than 100 million sharks annually, and 90 percent of the creatures have disappeared within the past 100 years.

The nongovernmental organization Traffic estimates the total value of trade in shark fins at over $480 million per year. Last year, the CITES signatories decided to tighten regulations on trade in five kinds of sharks.

mkg/hc (AFP, dpa, AP)

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