Officials from around the world have gathered in this balmy Central American capital to negotiate, not about weapons or oil, but about the state of the American alligator, the Peruvian marmoset, the Queensland hairy-nosed wombat and the Tasmanian tiger.
It is the second meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, one of the world's most unusual exercises in multinational cooperation. Fifty nations have ratified a treaty, drawn up in 1973, to control the export and import of rare animals, birds, reptiles and plants.
That goal, worthy at first blush, has become tangled in delicate questions of diplomacy and complex scientific debate. The protection of endangered species has provided a worldwide political battle with significant economic implications for industrial and developing countries alike.
Of the roughly 13,200 mammal and bird species known to exist in the 17th century, more than 130 have become extinct including the passenger pigeon, steller's sea cow and the West Indian monk seal.
Today hundreds more are threatened by human exploitation: crocodiles, used in making shoes and handbags; leopards and cheetahs for coats, turtles for meat and shells, elephants for ivory, and exotic birds and monkeys for pets.
Under the convention, treaty members have listed 982 species endangered, some of which may hardly be traded at all, others which should be carefully controlled. The trade, a multimillion dollar business, is mostly one way -- from Third World countries that have the wildlife, to Europe, Japan and North America which crave the luxury products made from the species. The United States is unusual as both a large importer and exporter.
The convention here is a giant bazaar with buyers and sellers of every stripe. There are the Arabs and the Israelis; the South Africans and Botswanans; the Soviets and, for the first time, five observers from the People's Republic of China.
And there are the lobbyists, permitted under convention rules to participate in the proceedings: a score of environmental groups ranging from the huge National Wildlife Federation to the tiny International Primate Protection League of Summerville, S.C.; the Whale Center of San Francisco and the Wild Bird Society of Japan; the American Fur Industry, the Safari Club and the Pet Trade Association; and the Association of Systematics Collections, a Kansas-based group of scientists who want to exchange specimens.
There are people who represent orchid growers and zoos and laboratories that experiment with primates. Rep. John B. Breaux, (D-La.), is coming to encourage export of alligators.
They are so plentiful in his district, "We are trying to get them to register to vote," Breaux said.
The U.S. delegation and U.S. environmental groups are at loggerheads. After months of political wrangling within the administration, the United States, represented by Interior Department officials, wants to temporarily relax criteria for listing species. Several listed species are not strictly endangered, they contend, and should be removed from the list.
Among these, the bobcat, a staple of the American fur industry, is the most controversial. Interior, under pressure from state wildlife agencies, suggested delisting it, but backed down after environmentalist threatened suit.
Still, the United States proposes to delist the marshhawk, mearns quail, the kestrel or sparrowhawk, the osprey and the greater prairie chicken. It wants to relax protection for the Atlantic sturgeon, the alligator, the Alaskan bald eagle and the northern elephant seal, and tighten restrictions on the eastern golden eagle, the guadelupe fur seal, the American crocodile and the bolson tortoise.
These are among 250 changes in species' status proposed by different nations. The most controversial include the Swiss proposal to relax trading in cats such as ocelots, lynx and cougar and the British move to regulate trading in all whales and dolphins.
While the treaty has somewhat limited trade in endangered species in the last three years, serious enforcement problems exist. More than lalf the world's nations are not parties, including major trading centers such as Belgium and Japan and large producers such as Mexico and Thailand. Even member nations enforce regulations "in a somewhat random and half-hearted way," according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which monitors trade.
France signed the treaty with a reservation that it could import as many crocodile and turtle products as it wants. Leopard, cheetah and other skins pour into Western Europe unabated. Although many Third World countries prohibit the export of endangered species, they ahve little ability to enforce antipoaching or customs laws.
"Exporting countries have regulalations, but importing countries have none," complained J. K. Mutinda, director of Kenya's National Parks and Wildlife Department. "We would like to see more enforcement. We spend many sleepless nights in the bush trying to catch poachers, but somewhere someone is sitting with a big money magnet saying, 'bring it to us. We'll buy it.' We need a two-way check. It is impossible for us to do it alone."
Mutinda said rhino horns are coveted in the Yemens, Saudi Arabia and Cman for daggers. "The Middle East is our biggest headache," he said. "Every sheik must have his dagger. We try to persuade them to use plasttic. There are only a few hundred rhino left where there used to be thousands." The horns are also smuggled to the Far East to be used as an aphrodisiac and a cure for various illnesses.
Arabs are great importers of birds of prey for falconry. A Chicago businessman was recently convicted of trying to smuggle an endangered peregrine falcon out of the United States as a favor for an Arab client.
While Third World countries were long accused of exploting wild life, attitudes have changed. Kenya has banned hunting. Tanzania has trained an elite ranger corps to cope with poachers armed with machine guns and helicopters.
Whatever the conference may accomplish in revising regulations, it has provided an opportunity for cooperation in human ways. Jordanians and Israelis haven't spoken for years, but delegates from the two countries shook hands here the other day and began to talk about the Arabian oryx.
Also known as the unicorn, because its two straight horns appear as one, the oryx is extinct in the wild. Nine are captive in Israel, seven in Jordan and the two closed populations suffer from inbreeding.
"I'm floating around on a cloud," said Bill Clark of the New York-based Friends of Animals, who introduced the Arab and Israeli delegates to one another and wants to arrange an Arab-Israeli oryx marriage.