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International conference aims to protect endangered species

A UN environment expert has warned that trafficking has put several species of plants and animals in danger of extinction. A conference under way in Bangkok aims to protect polar bears, rays and sharks.

Making that warning to open the 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), UN Environment Program Executive Director Achim Steiner cited an upsurge in poaching of Africa's endangered elephants and rhinos. He said the increase was driven by rising demand in Asia for their tusks and horns, saying that in some countries poaching has driven the pachyderm population down by about 11 percent.

"The backdrop against which this meeting takes place should be a very serious wakeup call for all of us," Steiner told delegates at a convention center in the Thai capital. Wildlife trafficking "in a terrible way has become a trade and a business of enormous proportions - a billion-dollar trade in wildlife species that is analogous to that of the trade in drugs and arms," Steiner added. "This is not a small matter. It is driven by a conglomerate of crime syndicates across borders."

"Blood ivory" will be at the top of the agenda during the global biodiversity conference, which lasts until March 14. The conference will look at about 70 proposals, most of which will decide whether member nations increase or lower the level of protection on various species. CITES has put 35,000 species of plants and animals under its protection since it formed in 1973.

‘Survival of the species'

"The UNEP year book, supported by data from CITES and its Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants which is hosted by UNEP in Nairboi, indicates that the number of elephants that were killed in 2012 ran, as in 2011, into the tens of thousands," Steiner said in his keynote speech. "Meanwhile a record 668 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone last year."

At the time CITES formed, the African rhino numbered just 2,000. That number now stands at 25,000, but poaching has become more frequent again.

The culprit is largely demand from Asia, where their horns are highly desired because they are believed to have medicinal properties.

CITES Director-General John Scanlon said the slaughter of African elephants and rhinos "could threaten the survival of the species themselves," blaming poachers, rebel militias and syndicates for trafficking animal parts internationally.

"This criminal activity poses a serious threat to the stability and economies of these countries," Scanlon said. "It also robs these countries of their natural heritage, their culture heritage, and it undermines good governance and the rule of law. These criminals must be stopped, and we need to prepare to deploy the sorts of techniques that are used to combat the trade in narcotics to do so."

Watch video 01:52

Wildlife poaching at record high

Help from the hosts

Thailand's prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, said she would amend Thai law "with the goal of putting an end to the ivory trade," delighting conservationists who have long urged the kingdom to tackle the rampant smuggling of tusks through its territory. Activists say criminals exploit Thailand's legal trade in tusks from domesticated Asian elephants to sell African ivory. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Thailand is the world's second-largest illegal ivory market, behind China.

Yingluck said that the animals are very important for the national culture: "No one cares more about the elephant than the Thai people., she said. " Unfortunately, many have used Thailand as a transit country for the illegal international ivory trade."

Without giving a timeframe, Yingluck said Thailand would establish tighter controls to curb illegal flows of ivory and ensure existing ivory supply is from domestic elephants before legislating for an outright end to the trade.

mkg/msh (AFP, dpa, AP)

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