Governments boost support for sharks, elephants

A major meeting on the plight of endangered species wrapped up Thursday with a victory for shark conservationists and increased pressure on countries to curb rampant illegal trade in ivory.

In what was hailed as a "historic day" for the world's oldest predator, protection for the oceanic whitetip shark, the porbeagle, three types of hammerhead and the manta ray won final approval by the 178-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

On the final day of more than a week of talks in the Thai capital Bangkok, Japan along with China and other nations that support shark fishing lost an 11th-hour bid to overturn the landmark deal.

"Shark populations are in freefall, but have been thrown a lifeline today -- CITES has finally listened to the scientists," said Glenn Sant of wildlife trade protection group Traffic.

Rather than a complete ban, countries will be required to regulate trade by issuing export permits to ensure the sustainability of sharks in the wild, otherwise they could face sanctions by members of CITES, a global treaty that protects some 35,000 species.

The United States hailed the agreement as a "historic moment in shark and ray conservation".

In total, more than 300 threatened species won increased protection at the meeting, including dozens of types of turtles and timber.

The illegal ivory trade was at the top of the agenda with eight nations accused of failing to do enough to tackle the problem.

Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda as well as transit countries Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and top markets China and Thailand were identified as making insufficient efforts to curb the trade.

But they avoided sanctions after submitting -- or pledging to submit -- draft action plans that must be finalised by May, with the possibility that sanctions would be revisited if they do not make progress by July 2014.

Under the convention, member states can halt trading with offender countries in the 35,000 species covered by the convention.

CITES General Secretary John Scanlon said such measures were a "last resort" and should only be imposed "where there's a clear failure to comply and no intention to comply".

"We have not got to that point in my view. At this point we actually have states that are engaged," he told AFP.

Wildlife group WWF welcomed the increased pressure on the eight countries.

"After years of inaction, governments today put those countries failing to regulate the ivory trade on watch, a move that will help stem the unfettered slaughter of thousands of African elephants," said WWF's Carlos Drews.

The eight nations defended themselves in the face of the accusations, which led media to dub them the "Gang of Eight".

"We are not denying that we have an active seaport and an active airport, and that we have challenges," said Kenyan delegate Patrick Omondi.

"We should not be lumped together as a Gang of Eight. Transit and source countries have unique challenges," he said. "We feel the focus should be on the demand side."

Illicit trade in ivory has doubled since 2007 and more than tripled over the past 15 years, according to wildlife groups, which estimate that only about 420,000 to 650,000 elephants remain in Africa.

Conservationists fear that 2012 was an even deadlier year than 2011, when an estimated 25,000 African elephants were killed.

In an effort to better track the illicit commerce, CITES members adopted new measures under which countries making large seizures of illegal ivory will be required to conduct DNA tests to determine their origin.

Scanlon rejected suggestions that the action had fallen short of expectations.

"We've seen an unprecedented level of international cooperation," he said, comparing the fight against ivory trade to the battle against trafficking in drugs, arms and people.

"Wildlife crime is in the same league as these sorts of crimes. You've got serious transnational organised criminals involved in this -- they are hard to crack. We haven't cracked them in any area," he said.

Rhinos were also a hot topic at the meeting, with Vietnam and Mozambique urged to do more to fight the illegal trade, which saw some 668 rhinos slaughtered in 2012.

But a US-led push for a ban on international trade in polar bears was rejected amid fears it would distract from the bigger threat of global warming.

The proposal had divided conservationists, who agree that the main risk to the world's largest carnivorous land animal comes from habitat loss but differ over whether international trade also puts the bears at risk of extinction.

The next CITES meeting will be held in South Africa in 2016.