Friday, 15 Nov 2002

SANTIAGO, Chile

9 a.m. — The 12th Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is ending not with a bang, but with a whimper. Befitting the fact that the final plenary session of CITES does little more than rubber stamp the decisions made originally in the committee meetings, most NGOs have already packed up and headed home. By the time I had finished writing yesterday’s post and left the office for lunch, the booths surrounding our office had already been vacated and the temporary partitions that had formed the physical geography of our lives for the last two weeks were being yanked down.

It was really quite odd: We worked almost non-stop until late Wednesday night when the toothfish resolution was finally debated, and by the next morning, the pace, not just for us, but for the whole conference, had dramatically changed. The conference is still going on, but our work is done and the finale for us has been rather anticlimactic. There is at least one silver lining, however: With the conference center rapidly emptying, the number of people standing around our offices and smoking cigarettes has dramatically decreased. We’re all enjoying the clean indoor air this morning.

Even though most NGOs have already left town, there are still some important decisions being made here at CITES. The plenary meeting is being lobbied aggressively on a few key issues and has already agreed to change a few close and controversial votes. Some votes are being changed because several nations have only just recently managed to register and receive their official credentials for the conference.

Bottlenose dolphins.

NOAA.

Among the decisions that have been altered is Georgia’s proposal to list the Black Sea bottlenose dolphin under CITES. Originally, Georgia had pushed for the strongest protection CITES offers — an Appendix I listing — but, in what could prove to be either a dangerous or useful tactic for conservationists, the country has agreed to accept an Appendix II listing with a zero-trade quota. This means that countries (currently Russian and the Ukraine) capturing bottlenose dolphins from the Black Sea will not be able to issue export permits to sell them on the international market.

Bottlenose dolphins are in high demand from circuses, amusement parks, dolphinariums, and marine parks for their playful acrobatics and receptivity to training. Russia, the world’s leading exporter of these dolphins — which can fetch up to $30,000 on the open market and are sometimes traded online — led the opposition to a ban, saying that its studies show the population is thriving and unharmed by trade. Environmentalists counter that the species takes nearly as long as humans to reach sexual maturity and that increased trading in recent years, combined with pollution in the Black Sea, is seriously undermining the population. The original attempt to place the bottlenose dolphins on CITES Appendix I lost by a wide margin, but the Appendix II listing passed yesterday by 83 to 16.

Beautiful Bryde’s.

Greenpeace.

There’s also good news for whale lovers: Despite furious lobbying, the Japanese delegation failed yesterday in their final attempt to downlist minke and Bryde’s whales from CITES Appendix I, which bans all cross-border trade. The committee votes on these two whale species were extraordinarily close and many environmentalists here feared that Japan might successfully swap — or possibly even buy — the votes necessary to begin trading the whales again.

Other victories for the conservationists here at CITES include the listing of all 32 species of seahorses on Appendix II, thus restricting its trade. Seahorses, depending on the region of the world in which they are caught, are used primarily in traditional medicine or sold as kitschy trinkets from a beach vacation. The species faces extinction across the globe with catches in some areas already down by 95 percent.

Also, on Thursday, CITES voted to provide safeguards to protect bears from the gruesome practice under which they are kept in tiny cages and milked for their bile, a greenish-brown digestive fluid secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. The bile is prized in traditional Chinese medicine for treating liver disease and headaches; it is used also in a growing number of luxury cosmetics. Chinese “bear farms” are notorious for the poor conditions in which the animals live, and for the fact that the bile is drained by placing pipes into wounds that are purposefully kept open throughout the life of the animal.

11 a.m. — Wow! Great news! We’ve just received word that the proposals to list basking sharks and whale sharks on CITES Appendix II, each of which failed by only two votes in committee, were accepted in the plenary session. The fins — and only the fins — from the sharks are prized in places like China and Taiwan, where shark fin soup is considered a delicacy and the giant fins can fetch upwards of $15,000 apiece. Since the loss in committee, the conservation community has been furiously lobbying the delegates. This is by all counts a major victory for the environmental movement.

Termas de Chillan.

Okay, we’re about to shut down our office and head out for some last-minute shopping, so I have to wrap this up. Although I hate to admit it, I’m a little jealous of the folks who are heading home tonight. The thought of sleeping in my own bed and eating a good meal back in Washington, D.C. is awfully appealing. That said, I’m happy that I’m sticking around to explore Chile next week. Tomorrow, several of my colleagues and I are heading up into the high Andes across the border into Argentina for a few hours of trekking. After that, we’ll drive south to a famous Chilean spa (Termas de Chillan) for a few days of much needed R&R, then we’ll travel back up the coast, stopping along the way at a few beach towns. We’ll end our vacation at the port city of Valparaiso, just a few hours to the west of here. It should be an amazing vacation and I’m really looking forward to having more time to explore this diverse country.

Well, thanks to everyone who’s made it through my posts this week. Its been a great experience writing for you and I hope my dispatches from CITES have provided an interesting window on the world of multi-national conservation efforts. If you have any questions feel free to drop me a note at akatkin@environet.org; I’d love to hear from any Grist readers out there!