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Countries Gather For Wildlife Convention On Animal Trafficking


In Johannesburg, South Africa, a major convention is charting the future of wildlife. More than 180 countries are there. They're addressing policies that cover more than 500 different plants and animals. One of the biggest literally is elephants. Organized criminal gangs make huge fortunes from illegal poaching.

Joining us from Johannesburg is Ginette Hemley She's vice president of wildlife conservation for the World Wildlife Fund. Welcome.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: First give us a big picture of what this convention is attempting to do.

GINETTE HEMLEY: OK, so we've got the largest gathering of conservationists and governments to focus on wildlife conservation ever convene globally. And what this convention is trying to do is really put in place stronger protection measures for those species that are most threatened by international trade and to try to improve how other species that are lesser - have less endangered status are protected in commerce.

SHAPIRO: Looking specifically at elephants, how bad are things now?

HEMLEY: Well, the conference opened with the rather dire news that the African elephant population has dropped by over a hundred thousand animals in the last decade down to about 450,000 animals - about a 20 to 30 percent drop.

The illegal trade in ivory has escalated in the last seven or eight years because of demand in China, and it has become such a large-scale problem that is run by organized criminal syndicates that it is simply a challenge that the world has not been able to get on top of. And CITES is here to try to tackle it.

SHAPIRO: CITES is the name of this convention. Many of these organized criminal syndicates also traffic in humans or illegal drugs, and the penalties for trafficking in those things are far, far greater than trafficking in illegal ivory. So how do you intend to deter it?

HEMLEY: Well, that is one of the fundamentals. I mean a convention is only as good as the enforcement efforts of the individual countries that are members of it. We've seen some major progress in various countries in the last few years, including in the United States. The Senate passed a new law in the United States that increases the penalties for wildlife crimes to really put this area of illegality on par with other major crimes.

Here in South Africa, they have similarly adopted a strategy that really brings in different sectors outside of wildlife conservation. We're seeing that we need to bring in other sectors, including the security world, the intelligence community. Even the defense sector is getting involved here in South Africa. And that's the only way we're going to get on top of this problem - if we bring all of these agencies together to really help.

SHAPIRO: Explain the disagreement among African countries and others over how to solve this problem.

HEMLEY: You've got countries in East Africa and Central Africa who are adamantly against the trade because they have had the biggest struggles in controlling the poaching. In contrast, in Southern Africa, you have two countries here at the conference - Zimbabwe and Namibia - who, based on their successes in conserving elephants, they are actually advocating to lift the trade bans on ivory for their own countries.

Our view is that it is far too risky to entertain any opening of the trade. Right now there's a global trade ban in place even though you've got countries in this part of Africa who have done a good job with their conservation programs and actually have a lot of elephants.

SHAPIRO: So what are Chinese representatives saying at this conference given how important the Chinese market is to the preservation of elephants?

HEMLEY: You know, China has actually been really evolving in the right direction here. China has made a public commitment to implementing a domestic trade ban. We have yet to see that implementation plan. It's supposed to be delivered by the end of this year. But China actually is one of the new and very positive developments in these dialogues compared to where we were, say, 10 years ago.

SHAPIRO: Ginette Hemley is vice president of wildlife conservation for the World Wildlife Fund and joined us from Johannesburg, South Africa. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

HEMLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.