Victory for Britain as giant sharks are given protection

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The Independent Online

The world's biggest fish, the whale shark and the basking shark, both threatened by demand for their enormous fins, were at last given much-needed protection yesterday after a long diplomatic wrangle in which Britain played a leading role.

The world's biggest fish, the whale shark and the basking shark, both threatened by demand for their enormous fins, were at last given much-needed protection yesterday after a long diplomatic wrangle in which Britain played a leading role.

Tough controls on the trade in both species were narrowly agreed at the meeting in Santiago, Chile, of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), after an initial vote in mid-week among the 150 countries attending the meeting had been lost.

Cheers and applause greeted the decisions in the conference hall and conservationists expressed their delight. "It's a great day to be a shark," said Callum Rankine of the conservation charity WWF.

Besides their enormous size – the whale shark can be 60ft long and the basking shark 35ft – both fish are very vulnerable to exploitation, because they arrive at sexual maturity late and then reproduce only slowly.

Filter-feeders on plankton rather than carnivores, "gentle giants of the sea", they have been increasingly hunted for their huge dorsal fins, which can be more than 6ft high and are now greatly sought after in the Far East as signboards outside Chinese restaurants and as trophies in private homes.

In recent years their value has soared and a single fin can now fetch more than £10,000. Populations of both fish are thought to be in steep decline as a result.

The agreement does not ban the trade in products of the two species outright, although it may very well be an initial step along that road. But it does mean that the trade will be carefully regulated with a system of import and export permits, which is likely to curb illegal hunting, and may in itself provide valuable information on two creatures whose life cycles remain largely mysterious.

The basking shark, which is found across the world, lives in moderate numbers off the west coast of Britain in the summer, and the proposal to control the trade came from London. The strongholds of the whale shark are more in the seas of the Far East and around Australia, and the proposal to protect it came from the Philippines.

Active opposition to the idea of protection has come from the countries still involved in commercial whaling, led by Japan and Norway. But Elliot Morley, Britain's Nature Protection minister, has spent much of the past few months actively lobbying other governments over shark protection and the European Union has been solidly behind the idea.

When the proposals were initially put to the vote in Santiago on Wednesday they were defeated, but by the narrowest of margins, falling only two votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

The British delegation then engaged in a further intensive lobbying exercise to try to switch the few countries necessary, and this was successful: when the votes were taken again yesterday they just passed, the basking shark by three votes and the whale shark by one.

Conservationists were jubilant. "It is absolutely fantastic news," said Kara Brydson, a marine campaigner for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "This historic decision ensures that these sharks will have a fighting chance in the future."

Green groups at the conference openly paid tribute to the part the Government, and in particular Mr Morley, had played in securing the decision. Mr Morley was elated, saying: "That the vote went through for both these sharks is fantastic, a tremendous victory."

There were other notable victories for conservation this week in Santiago, which proved to be one of the most successful meetings of Cites.

Big-leaf mahogany, in great demand in the West for luxury furniture, and the 32 species of seahorse, in demand in the Far East as an ingredient in traditional medicine, were both given the same protection as the whale shark and basking shark, with strict controls on future trade.

A hardwood found in tropical forests from Mexico to the Amazon, big-leaf mahogany has suffered from illegal logging, which may represent 70 per cent of the harvest, according to the Brazilian government. Uncontrolled exploitation has been threatening the tree with commercial extinction within as little as five years.

Sea horses, which range from fingernail-sized to a foot long and are sold mainly as aquarium pets or dried and used in traditional medicine, are traded by no fewer than 69 countries. They are now approaching gold in price per kilogram and their populations are being rapidly depleted.

Resolutions were passed at the meeting calling for more conservation action on bear species, and Asian big cats such as the snow leopard and clouded leopard.

All are already fully protected under Cites, with all trade banned, but illegal trade in leopard skins is on the increase, and bears are threatened by the Chinese government's expanding programme of farming bears to extract their bile.

The major retrograde step from conservationists' point of view was the decision to reopen the ivory trade by allowing three southern African countries, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, to sell large amounts of elephant tusks from their ivory stockpiles.