Nations reject coral protections at wildlife conservation conference

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010

Delegates at a global wildlife conservation conference voted Sunday to protect a coveted salamander but rejected a more sweeping proposal that would have regulated the trade of red and pink corals worldwide.

The latest round of voting at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) underscored nations' unwillingness to forgo immediate economic gains from exploiting natural resources, even when these activities are putting plants and animals under intense pressure.

The 175 nations gathered in Doha, Qatar, unanimously voted to ban the international trade of Kaiser's spotted newt, a black and brown Iranian salamander often sought as a pet. According to the World Wildlife Fund, about 1,000 of the animals are left, and about 200 are traded each year. A Web site operated out of Ukraine serves as the main vehicle for the transactions; the measure makes it the first species threatened by electronic commerce to receive environmental protection.

But delegates declined to adopt a proposal offered by the United States and Sweden that would have regulated, for the first time, red and pink corals that are targeted for the jewelry, home decor and homeopathic medicine market. The 31 species that would have received new protections are taken primarily from the Mediterranean and are used in the production of high-end jewelry in European countries such as Italy and Croatia, as well as cheaper decorations and souvenirs in Taiwan and China.

Environmentalists and scientists argue that corals, which are living animals and seriously threatened by rising carbon dioxide emissions that are warming the ocean and making it more acidic, cannot afford the added pressure of a commercial harvest. Nearly 30 percent of the world's tropical coral species have disappeared since 1980, mainly because of warming, and an even larger percentage may have disappeared by the end of the last century. As coral species have struggled, the harvest has declined sharply, dropping from 450 tons annually in the 1970s to 50 tons a year today, according to the advocacy group Oceana.

David Allison, Oceana's senior campaign director, said Sunday's vote demonstrated that "vanity has once again trumped conservation."

"It's really shameful," Allison said in an interview from Doha, adding that the convention has lost sight of its original mission. "It's not about, How do you use trade to effectively bring about rational market management?"

The countries that traditionally lobby for use of marine resources -- Japan, Iceland, Libya and Tunisia -- spoke out against protection, arguing that it would jeopardize fishing jobs. Tom Strickland, assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife and parks, spoke out for regulating the coral trade. Passage in CITES requires two-thirds of the delegate votes, and the measure failed on a secret ballot with 64 in favor, 59 opposed and 10 abstaining.

"Although the proposal did not gain the two-thirds majority of votes necessary to be adopted, the U.S. is encouraged by the fact that the majority of the parties voted in support of the proposal," Strickland said.

Last week, delegates at CITES denied protections for the polar bear and Atlantic bluefin tuna; ocean advocates are becoming so disillusioned with the Doha conservation conference they've started calling it "No-ha."

"Corals are the building blocks of many ocean ecosystems, and the science is clear: They are at great risk," said Dawn Martin, president of SeaWeb. "And now, since action was not taken at CITES, red and pink coral populations will continue to decline at an alarming rate."

Some jewelers and home decor companies, such as Tiffany and Temple St. Clair, have voluntarily stopped selling corals for environmental reasons.

In a separate compromise on tigers, delegates unanimously adopted a measure Sunday calling for increased regional cooperation among nations in which tigers roam, as well as improved reporting, establishment of a tiger trade database and enhanced law enforcement. The nations could not agree on tightened controls for domestic trading in tiger parts and products from tiger farms, in part because of resistance from China.

"This proposal was a test for the effectiveness of CITES as an international conservation agreement, and despite the compromise, progress was made," said Carlos Drews, who directs the species program for World Wildlife Fund-International. "But words alone will not save wild tigers as a global poaching epidemic empties Asia's forests, and CITES governments will need to live up to the commitments made today."

The attendees also decided by consensus to include several reptiles and amphibians from Central America and Iran in its lists, including the Guatemalan spiny tailed iguana and other three species of iguanas native to central and southeastern Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America. It also adopted measures to protect a genus of tree frogs from Central and South America that is under pressure owing to habitat loss and degradation, as well as the fungal disease chytridiomycosis.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company