|BANGKOK - Asia needs a special crime-fighting network to combat a booming illegal wildlife trade worth billions of dollars which threatens many species with extinction, Thailand's prime minister said on the weekend.|
Opening a global meeting in Bangkok on endangered species, Thaksin Shinawatra said no country alone could defeat the illicit trade which ranges from elephant ivory and rhino horn to tropical timber and rare turtles.
"Globally, the illegal trade in wildlife, timber and other natural resources is surpassed only by trafficking in drugs and weapons. This is a shocking statistic," Thaksin said.
"It is incumbent on us to meet this challenge through serious conservation efforts and stricter law enforcement," he told 1,500 delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting.
With 166 member countries, CITES is the only global treaty regulating trade in threatened and endangered animals and plants. It is best known for saving African elephants by banning ivory sales in 1989.
The two-week meeting in Bangkok will debate 60 proposals, including limits on trade in well-known species such as the great white shark and Asian elephant.
Others include the Irrawaddy dolphin, which gets tangled in nets or killed by dynamite fishing, the tropical ramin tree used in picture frames and pool cues, and the humphead wrasse - a reef fish popular with East Asians.
Japan's push to limit protection of the minke whale will be a bruising battle, say conservationists, who fear it will increase pressure to resume commercial whaling, banned in 1986.
EU countries have said they will oppose Japan's efforts to restart whaling.
The meeting is being held for the first time in Southeast Asia where organized crime gangs reap massive profits across the region, including Thailand, a key supplier and transit point.
The regional trade is being fueled by China where protected animals are used in exotic dishes and medicines.
Environmentalists say illegal traders using complex smuggling networks are running circles around the treaty, which relies on its member governments to enforce it.
"Holding the conference here has focused attention on Thailand and Southeast Asia as a major hub for the wildlife trade," said Susan Lieberman, a director of the World Wildlife Fund.
Southeast Asian governments are expected to make a joint statement next week. Thaksin offered to host a summit next year to hammer out details for a regional network of law enforcement agencies.
"There is no country that can fight this battle alone," he said. "If Asia is to save its precious resources and unique wildlife, it deserves nothing but our best effort."
CITES already bans trade in 600 animal species and 300 types of plants from apes to cacti, and strictly limits trade in 4,100 animal species and 28,000 types of plants.
But the treaty is hampered by underfunding and the low priority it is given by some members, said CITES secretary-general Willem Wijnstekers.
"CITES is in urgent need of action, rather than words," he told the meeting. "What this 30-year-old convention urgently needs is increased political will in most, if not, all of its 166 parties."
Story by Darren Schuettler
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE