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4 Jun 07
Wildlife advocates disagree on how humans fit into picture
by Marlowe Hood
Some 150 hardcore wildlife advocates packed into a conference room Monday differed sharply on whether the world body charged with regulating the trade of endangered species should worry about protecting people too.
At issue is a seemingly unobjectionable resolution calling on CITES, the 171-nation Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to consider the potential impact of wildlife trade restrictions on impoverished local communities.
What's at stake, however, is nothing less than the core identity of the only international organisation beside the International Whaling Commission with the power to slap a total ban on the commercial exploitation of a plant or animal.
CITES currently protects thousands of species, including tigers, Asian and African elephants, a dozen species of whales, great apes and sea turtles.
"Bringing people's livelihood into the discussion diverts CITES from its original mandate -- to ensure that trade does not threaten wild species," insisted Michael Wamithi, the International Fund for Animal Welfare programme manager for African elephants and a former a conservation manager for Kenya.
Once human development issues are added to the scales, the temptation to "trade beyond biological capacity" will increase, and could result in decisions that are not in the best interest of wildlife, he said.
The highly-contested authorisation on Saturday by CITES of ivory stocks to Japan, he said, may offer short-term benefits to local populations, but the organisation's role is to protect elephants, not people.
Proponents counter by saying the resolution is non-binding, and that human impact evaluations would not become part of the formal criteria for deciding whether to include an animal or plant in the three-tiered CITES classification.
Those three tiers range from total, or near-total, trade bans to limited restrictions within a single country. At present some 33,000 species are protected, most of them plants, and most of them in "Annex II," which requires scientific certification and proof of origin to be traded.
"CITES decisions can have an impact on poor people -- sometimes positive, sometimes negative," said Trevor Salmon, head of the organizations policy unit in Britain. "When it does affect the poor, it should not make things worse for them."
There are both principled and practical reasons for taking this position, like-minded delegates and observers at the two-week conference suggested.
"We have an ethical responsibility to look at the social impact of our decisions, even if they are science-based," said Sue Lieberman, Director of the Global Species Program at the World Wildlife Fund.
Besides, making an explicit link between conservation and poverty alleviation is a good tactic, she said, for keeping wildlife protection in the spotlight.
"Species conservation is falling off the global agenda, and is getting less focus. We don't have the resources."
Both sides of the debate insist their approach is a better guarantee of economic security for local peoples who often depend on threatened flora and fauna to survive: whether in the form or eco-tourism from big African mammals or medicinal plants gathered in the Kalahari dessert.
But neither side is willing to say -- if a choice has to be made -- that it would sacrifice the interests of either people or wildlife.
"What happens when you don't have a win-win situation and listing a species means protecting wildlife but harming the local economy?", said a delegate who asked not to be named. "Sometimes there are tough choices to be made."
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