CITES to Study Species Over-Exploitation
By ARTHUR MAX
THE HAGUE, Netherlands – If you think the problem of endangered species is all about tigers, elephants and orangutans, ask a violinist where he gets his bow.
The best violin bows are made from pau brasil, a tree from the Brazilian rain forest that has been exploited for 500 years, and was once so economically vital for the red dye it produced that it gave its name to the only country where it grows.
Pau brasil is among dozens of plants and animals threatened with extinction that are on the agenda of the 171-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, which opens its meeting Sunday. About 7,000 animals and 32,000 plant families now are regulated, including more than 800 species which are banned completely from commerce.
Bows from brazilwood, also known as Pernambuco, have been coveted by musicians since Mozart’s time in the mid-1700s for their sound quality, density, rich color and strength in holding a curve.
Brazil has tried to halt the decline of the tree’s coastal habitat, delineating 189 national forests and protected areas as it works to fend off the encroachments of sugar and coffee plantations, gold miners, timber merchants and cattlemen.
It takes a lot of wood to make a violin bow – of every 3,300 pounds, only 220 to 440 pounds are usable, experts say, and 80 percent of that is wasted in carving the bow. The tree has a trunk only about 15 feet long, meaning a tree can produce only a few bows.
Also on the agenda is Honduran rosewood, a tree that grows in small areas of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize from which top-quality marimbas are made.
And Peru may face sanctions for failing to control the export of mahogany, which is used for guitars. About 90 percent of the mahogany from the Peruvian Amazon is logged illegally, said Kris Genovese of the Defenders of Wildlife.
Although they cannot vote, non-government organizations and lobby groups will present papers at the CITES meeting, speak and prowl the corridors. Among them is the Pernambuco Initiative, with a membership of 220 people – claiming 70 percent of the world’s bow makers – in 22 countries. It already has financed the planting of thousands of pau brasil seedlings since 2002.
“Conservation of a tropical timber species is a complex issue,” the group said in a paper appended to Brazil’s proposal on protecting its forests. “One of the most important factors is to have the support and involvement of the users of the species.”
The CITES conference focuses on over-exploitation of exotic species. But in the background this year are fresh warnings that many more species will be wiped out by climate change.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said a global temperature rise of 3.6 degrees – the minimum scientists expect by the end of this century – will kill 30 percent of all known species.
“Climate change is a major threat, but so is trade,” said Susan Lieberman, director of the Species Unit for the World Wildlife Fund. “More and more species are being threatened because of globalization.”
Many of the issues to be discussed are familiar from previous CITES meetings.
Botswana, supported by Namibia and Tanzania, wants to relax the 1989 ban on the ivory trade, arguing that its elephant population has rebounded. The 150,000 animals roaming the savanna are increasingly competing with man for space, it says.
Local people think “elephants are a pest,” Botswana said in its application. It pledged to earmark state revenue from the ivory trade to elephant conservation and community development.
But conservationists object, saying the illegal ivory trade is thriving and that lifting the ban in some countries would make it easier to poach elephants all over Africa, where herds are shrinking.
China, which agreed in 1993 to halt the trade in tiger bones, wants to harvest tiger products from breeding farms, saying it would help satisfy the demand for traditional medicines without threatening tigers in the wild, which are on the verge of extinction. China has several farms raising thousands of captive tigers.
Opponents argue legitimizing the sale of tiger parts would only re-ignite a public appetite for the banned goods and encourage poaching of the big cat.
“The Chinese ban has been working really well,” WWF’s Lieberman said. “But they are under a lot of pressure from powerful businessmen.”
One new item on the agenda is a German proposal to regulate trade in the spiny dogfish, a small migratory shark commonly used for fish-and-chips. Stocks of reproductive females have declined by 95 percent in the Northeast Atlantic and by 75 percent in the Northwest Atlantic, says WWF. A female takes up to 23 years to mature.
Germany also wants to list porbeagle sharks, another slow-growing shark prized for its meat and fins for shark fin soup.
Among the 36 proposals – each requiring a two-thirds majority of voting member states – are recommendations to increase protection for whales, sawfish, European eel, and Brazilian spiny lobsters.