CITES: Dangling elephants and picketing toothfish

Vote to prevent extinctions, Greenpeace tells UN delegates in Santiago

Feature story - 13 November, 2002
Two dramatic Greenpeace actions today and yesterday stressed the plight of endangered species to delegates who will vote to decide their fate. Decisions being made this week on toothfish, sharks, and elephants and other threatened species at the UN CITES meeting will determine the role international trade plays in their uncertain futures.

Greenpeace activitists with toothfish heads picket the entrance to the building CITES delegates are meeting.

Dangling by a thread

When Chilean president Ricardo Lagos arrived yesterday, he saw the larger-than-life inflatable whale and elephant dangling from the 22nd floor of a building facing the CITES meeting site. "Mr. President, our lives hang by a thread, save us," was the Greenpeace message he read on a banner as he came to address delegates at the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting. Greenpeace activists were able to hand the president a letter urging him to take action to protect the world's plants and animals.

Toothfish take to the streets

And today fish heads picketed the CITES meeting venue to demand protection for marine life. Greenpeace activists wearing the mock toothfish masks urged delegates to accept a proposal to stem the rampant and illegal trade in toothfish, a valuable species found in icy Antarctic and Patagonian waters. This fishery also resulted in the death of 93,000 birds in the last year, many of them endangered.

A proposal to upgrade toothfish (also called Chilean sea bass) to CITES Appendix II would extend their protection to nations not yet required to do so. Unfortunately, countries including Norway, Japan, Russia, China and Chile say they will oppose the proposal because it will cut off their access to lucrative markets. This position is utterly untenable when this fishery faces commercial extinction from pirate fishing in ten years or sooner.

Some countries are resisting the use of CITES to protect marine species, but CITES Secretary General Willem Wijnstekers used his opening address to tell delegates that this convention could and should play an enhanced role in commercial fishery management.

Sharks and elephants lose

While proposals to erode protection for whales were soundly defeated at CITES last week, elephants and whale sharks did not fare as well in yesterday's votes. Separate bids to increase protection for whale sharks and basking sharks both lost by a mere two votes. Upgrading their protection to CITES appendix II would have allowed much tighter regulation of trade in the sharks, which are threatened by a high demand for shark fins as food.

And the outlook for African elephants dimmed as CITES conditionally accepted proposals from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa to make one-off sales of ivory. Similar proposals from Zambia and Zimbabwe were not accepted. Unfortunately, experience shows allowing one-off sales sends the completely wrong message to the market and inevitably leads to increased poaching.