The battle to save the world's rare wildlife

Two weeks of heated international debate about the hunting of rare wildlife open this morning when ministers and officials from 150 countries meet at the Nairobi conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

The argument will be between nations that want to preserve wild creatures and plants, and those that want to hunt them, export them, and generally use them for profit.

At the top of the agenda are the great beasts which conservationists sometimes call, with a hint of irony, the charismatic megafauna: elephants, whales, sharks and tigers. All can be turned into valuable commercial products for which there is a demand - ivory, whale meat and blubber, shark's fin and tiger bones, prized in traditional Chinese medecine - and all will be the subject of fierce arguments about their protection and use.

Four southern African countries, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, want to reopen the trade in elephant ivory, banned around the world by Cites in 1990 when African elephants seemed unstoppably headed for extinction. Two traditional whaling nations, Norway and Japan, want to reopen the trade in whale meat which was outlawed with the whaling moratorium of 1986 when several of the larger whale species had been virtually wiped out.

Three conservation-minded countries, Britain, the US and Australia, want to move to protect the three greatest of the sharks - the whale shark, the basking shark and the great white shark - increasingly hunted for their finds or for their teeth as trophies.

And one nation, India, will come under fierce attack for its alleged failure to protect its most magnificent animal the Bengal tiger, in spite of a protection programme that stretches across the land.

Britain will be opposing the whale and ivory moves, and supporting the drive to make India put its tiger-conservation house in order by setting up a national wildlife crime unit to combat poachers.

Further down the agenda will be arguments about a raft of humbler but still fascinating creatures, from the hawksbill turtle and the Malagasy poison frog to the ornamental tarantula of India and Sri Lanka, all of which are threatened in one way or another. Cuba wants to trade annually in the endangered hawksbill's shells (Britain is opposing this), and the frog and the spider are at risk from overcollecting for the pet trade.

Horse-trading will be the order of the day. It became clear in the Norwegian press last week that pro-whaling and the pro-ivory groups will form an ad hoc alliance: the Oslo paper Dagbladet reported last Tuesday that Norway will support the proposal to reopen the ivory trade in return for backing from the four African countries over whaling.

Green pressure groups have been alarmed that in both cases decisions could be taken which would fatally undermine the whaling and ivory trade bans, although a two-thirds majority of countries voting is necessary.

Britain's Fisheries Minister, Elliot Morley, who has responsibility for whaling, will be travelling to Nairobi in person next week to lobby other Cites member states on the whaling issue. Mr Morley said last week that Britain was "implacably opposed" to resuming the trade in whale meat.

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