plans to protect elephants, rhinos and other species will be discussed at a
critical meeting that begins in Bangkok on Sunday.
Delegates will review the convention on
the international trade in endangered species (CITES).
Around 35,000 animals and plants are at
present protected by the treaty.
But with a global "extinction crisis"
facing many species, this year's meeting is being described as the most
critical in its history.
The CITES agreement was signed in
Washington in March 1973 in an attempt to regulate the burgeoning trade in wild
flora and fauna.
It entered into force in 1975 and
experts say that legitimate global imports of wildlife products are now worth
more than $300bn (Â£200bn) a year.
The convention works by licensing
commercial trade in species.
The process is meant to be governed by
the scientific evidence of threat against an animal or a plant.
However, as CITES consists of
government delegations, its decision-making is rooted in the political and
economic interests of member countries.
In Bangkok, delegates from some 178
countries will face some critical decisions.
The first one they will have to grapple
with is the issue of secret ballots.
Many critics argue that CITES
delegations sometimes hide behind the secret ballot process when they want to
avoid being seen putting commercial interests ahead of conservation.
Many campaigners are hoping that the
meeting will vote to restrict the use of secret voting in order to set a more
open tone for the meeting.
"CITES ought to be a transparent
body - but secret ballots have become easier to implement at the behest of
certain parties who don't want their vote to be known," Mark Jones from
Humane Society International told BBC News.
"We are supportive of increased
transparency so that parties can be held to account," he added.
Delegates will have to deal with 70 proposals
for amending the rules relating to specific species. Elephants will feature
heavily as the global demand for ivory is driving poaching to unprecedented
But many campaigners see Thailand as
being one of the biggest contributors to the trade, as it is legal there to
sell ivory taken from native elephants. Criminals are believed to use this
loophole to sell stocks of ivory from African elephants as well.
The Thai government is now under
pressure to take action.
"After years of failing to end
this unfettered trade, Thailand should grab the spotlight and shut down these
markets that are fuelling the poaching of elephants in Africa," said
Carlos Drews of environmental group WWF.
Campaign groups are seeking to have sanctions
imposed on Thailand, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria to try and stem
the flow of ivory.
Another issue that is dividing both
country delegations and welfare campaigners is the status of polar bears, a
situation the BBC reported on last December.
The US is proposing that all trade in
bear parts be banned - a move which is stridently opposed by Canada and Russia.
Around 400 bears a year are killed for this purpose.
Dan Ashe is the director of the US Fish
and Wildlife Service and head of the American delegation at CITES.
"While we recognise that the
bear-parts trade is not the factor that is driving the polar bears to
extinction... we believe that the commercial trade in bear parts should
On rhinos, Kenya is proposing that
there should be a moratorium on the export of trophy horns from South Africa
and Swaziland, which are currently exempt. Again there are divisions on the
given the highest level of protection by CITES, it is thought that only 200
Sumatran rhinos are still alive
Some environmentalists believe the
trophy hunting has helped the rhino population to recover by bringing in
revenue from tourism.
Other researchers are calling for the
legalisation of the
rhino horn trade as they blame the current ban for increasing the rewards from
poaching. Last year 668 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa, and
more than 100 have died so far this year.
Several species of shark are also
likely to get additional protection this time round according to campaigners,
as new reports indicated that over 100 million a year are being
killed in commercial fisheries.
One of the most interesting aspects of
this meeting is the emerging political alliance between the world's two biggest
economies - the US and China are co-sponsoring proposals to restrict trade in
Asian turtles and tortoises.
According to Dan Ashe, that is a
"It is the first time we have ever
made a joint proposal with China - that bodes well for a future partnership
emerging between US and China."
And as well as trying to save different
species, the US will be pushing forward with proposals for passports for
Many are made from rare types of wood
that require a permit to go from country to country. It is one proposal that
likely to have widespread support.
The meeting runs until 14 March.
The Convention assigns animals and
plants to different categories depending on the level of threat they face:
Â· Appendix I covers animals and plants in which all international commercial trade is
prohibited except in rare circumstances. In this category are 530 animal
species including tigers, white rhinos and gorillas.
Â· Appendix II is much bigger. Trade is allowed in these animals and plants but
strictly controlled by permit. Over 4,460 animals and 28,000 plants are in this
grouping, including polar bears and some shark species.
Â· Appendix III includes species that are protected within the borders of a member
country. There are 290 species in this group, including the two-toed sloth.