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  Yahoo News 15 Jun 07
China in the hotseat at UN wildlife trade forum
by Marlowe Hood

A voracious appetite for wildlife products driven by a juggernaut economy has pushed China into the spotlight at the UN forum for trade in endangered species as never before, officials and major conservation groups here said Thursday.

Sharks hunted to the edge of oblivion for their fins, live bears surgically milked for bile, elephants slaughtered to satisfy East Asia's craving for ivory, rare rhinos poached for horn-based medicines -- many of the high-profile crises in wildlife management lead, one way or another, to China's doorstep.

"Japan used to be the focus" of criticism -- fair or not -- from conservationists, said Sue Lieberman, who heads the World Wildlife Fund's global species programme. "Now it is China."

In the same way Tokyo battled public opinion critical of commercial whaling, for example, Beijing found itself this week in the uncomfortable position at the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting in The Hague, of defending the practice of intensive tiger farming.

But even as it draws intense fire from wildlife groups for fuelling illicit trade in threatened species, China also receives high marks for cooperation in enforcement, strong legislation, and a willingness to tackle difficult issues head on.

"Relations with authorities in China used to be distant, and not only geographically," said John Sellars, the top enforcement officer for 171-nation CITES, which came into force in 1975 and has the power to slap trade bans on species threatened with extinction.

"But over the last decade we have seen that completely change. Anytime we pass on some information about a case it is always followed up," something that cannot be said for many other states, he said.

Even major non-governmental organisations that have been sharply critical of China echo this view.

"Looking back 15 years, it is a sea change," said Lieberman, who was the top scientist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service until 2001. "China has never been as central as it is today. Putting tigers aside, they are doing a good job."

Steven Broad, executive director of the wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC, also sees a dramatic difference. "China's engagement has grown enormously. The have made great progress in facing up to the reality of illicit wildlife trade and its consequences," he said.

But in its efforts to demonstrate that they are adopting international standards of wildlife management, Beijing sometimes stumbles or runs into road blocks, these conservationists say.

A resolution originally drafted by China but amended during debate turned into a rebuke against the practice of large-scale tiger farming -- unique to China -- and a warning against lifting a 14-year old ban on domestic trade in tiger parts, especially bone.

CITES can ban international wildlife commerce, but is powerless to impose rules on commerce within a given country.

"Tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives," said the final resolution, which was adopted by consensus after China failed in an attempt to change the wording.

There are approximately 5,000 tigers on a handful of farms in China, which came into the conference saying it was evaluating petitions from domestic businesses to allow in-country sale of tiger-bone tonics.

But even the most virulent critics of tiger farming say that the only way forward is cooperation. "You cannot work without China. We do not want to isolate Beijing," said Kristn Nowell, TRAFFIC's expert on tiger poaching and illegal trade in tiger products.

Beijing also lost a bid to join Japan as only the second country in the world authorised to purchase elephant tusks from the stocks of four southern African countries because of concerns expressed about the widespread illegal sale of ivory in China.

While Beijing has come along way toward accepting CITES standards of wildlife conservation, there is still a fairly wide gap, said Joth Singh, the International Fund for Animal Welfare's director for wildlife and habitat protection.

"China historically has a 'consumption utilisation' approach to wildlife -- they see animals and plants as a resource to be used," he said. "They have reacted in the past to criticism by saying, 'Why can't we use our own resources the way we want to?'," he said, adding that he had heard a tiger compared to a barrel of oil.

But even Singh, whose organisation at times has tense relations with Beijing, acknowledges that China has evolved and is now starting to embrace the concept of sustainable wildlife management.

Still, he said, "they are still using wildlife rather than protecting it for conservation purposes."

This is especially true of plants and animals harvested for large-scale commercial exploitation, an area that CITES has only begun to monitor.

China's intensive consumption or processing for re-export of sea cucumbers, ginseng, hardwoods, and even the European eel have helped place all of these species under review or under CITES protection.

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