The US and Mongolia are backing a ban on the trade of a critically endangered antelope that has seen its numbers on the central Asian steppes devastated by hunting and disease.
The saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) once lived across Europe and Asia but is today confined to Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. In 2015 the species was hit by the outbreak of a bacterial infection that killed off half its population.
Now, at a major international conference on the trade in endangered plants and animals opening in Geneva on Saturday, governments will decide whether to upgrade protections for the iconic antelope. The plan to move the species to “appendix I”, the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), will likely face opposition from Kazakhstan.
“The saiga is a big one – their population is critically endangered by poaching and the die-offs,” says Sue Lieberman of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society. The antelope’s numbers are slowly starting to rise in Kazakhstan, leading those with trade interests to say the species has recovered, she says.
Some conservationists, such as trade monitoring group TRAFFIC, oppose a ban, saying it would lead to “implementation challenges” as Saiga tatarica would have a different listing to another antelope, Saiga borealis.
But some form of action seems needed – two Kazakh rangers have been killed this year, mostly recently in July, by antelope poachers. The species is predominantly killed for its horn, which is used in traditional medicine in Singapore, China and other countries.
Lieberman is hopeful the proposal will pass to move the species from appendix II – which controls trade but doesn’t prohibit it – to appendix I. If countries cannot reach a consensus then the decision, like all CITES resolutions, will be reached by majority vote. It is one of 53 new proposals on the table at the summit, which was moved from its planned venue in Sri Lanka after bombings earlier this year.
Among those plans are familiar competing proposals to weaken and strengthen protections for African elephants. Moves to give them the highest level of protection were defeated at the last CITES summit in 2016. At this year’s meeting, countries including Zambia and Botswana are leading proposals for a downlisting. “There is a possibility Zambia might get its downlisting but with zero quota [for trading],” says Mary Rice of the Environmental Investigations Agency.
One eye-catching and certainly unusual proposal is Israel’s suggestion of giving protections to the woolly mammoth. Restricting trade in an extinct animal might seem odd, but the intent is to limit laundering of elephant ivory through mammoth ivory, which is collected in Siberia from melting permafrost. Rice expects the proposal will fail to get enough backing, despite having merit.
Less controversial and more likely to pass are proposals to list a quartet of marine species in Appendix II, limiting their trade. Guitarfishes, wedgefishes, sea cucumbers and the until recently widespread mako shark are all likely to get stronger protections, Lieberman expects.
The conference, which comes in the wake of a major UN report that found humanity is threatening a million species, will also discuss the strategic future of CITES and how it meshes with international biodiversity goals to be thrashed out in Beijing, China, next year.
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