Parley on saving animals embarrasses Japanese

March 13, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Staff Writer

KYOTO, JAPAN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — KYOTO, Japan -- The Japanese liked the idea of playing host to this year's meeting of people concerned about protecting endangered species.

Trouble is, they also adore things made of ivory. They share the peculiar Asian passion for particular parts of bears. And the rest of the world's anxiety about the waning bluefin tuna population is overwhelmed by the Japanese craving for sushi -- which is what that fish becomes when it's attached to a blob of vinegared rice and dabbed with horseradish.

The conflict has produced some acute embarrassment for the Japanese as hosts of the Eighth Meeting of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that began here March 2 and ends today.

Save-the-elephant advocates had hardly started lobbying the worldwide convention last week when Japanese customs agents seized a shipment of 27 ivory tusks -- more than a third of a ton -- shipped here from South Africa in defiance of a ban imposed by the same convention three years ago.

Delegates were just getting ready to add bears to the convention's worldwide protected list when news broke that a ++ bear farm in northern Japan had starved and slaughtered 95 of them over three months preceding the Kyoto meeting.

And Japan itself had to resort to unusually aggressive host-country lobbying to fight off a ban on commercial fishing of Atlantic bluefin tuna. Mostly caught in Asian and Pacific waters rather than the Atlantic, bluefin tuna is so prized in sushi that a single fish can bring $30,000 here.

At the outset, the idea had been that playing host to a big meeting on endangered species might take some of the edge off Japan's image as a rapacious abuser of wildlife.

But CITES meetings attract a volatile mixture of animal-advocacy lobbyists and animal-user groups like fishermen. The result is a lot of hardball politicking that doesn't always lend itself to image-polishing of the type Japan hoped for.

The delegates represent 108 of the 112 countries that have signed an agreement originally negotiated in Washington, D.C., in 1973, to regulate -- in many cases, to ban -- international trade in endangered species of both animals and plants.

The countries meet every two or three years to decide which trade bans can be eased or eliminated and which species need more protection.

As it was three years ago in Switzerland, the hottest controversy has been over African elephants. The species declined from 1.2 million in the late 1970s to 600,000 after nearly a decade of relentless slaughter by ivory hunters.

The Switzerland meeting added the species to the protected list, banning trade in ivory, and the ban has brought poaching to a virtual standstill for about two years.

"The government of Japan has been scrupulous in enforcing the ivory trade ban," Bill Clark, chief biologist for the Friends of Animals, said this week. But the smuggling attempt uncovered 50 miles away in Kobe last week "proves that ivory is still as hot an illegal item in Japan as cocaine is in the U.S."

Well-off Japanese have treasured for centuries their families' NTC ever-growing collections of netsuke, ivory charms seldom bigger than four or five cubic inches, often carved into explicitly erotic scenes.

No one knows how many tons of elephant tusks have gone into these and other jewelry and trinkets favored by Japanese and other Asian ivory fanciers.

Delegates from four southern African countries, where elephant populations are not as depleted as in East Africa, spent much of this year's session trying without success to persuade other countries' representatives to relax the ivory ban.

With the futures of 2,500 animal species and 35,000 plants -- and an estimated $6 billion in trade -- under CITES supervision, Dr. Mostafa Tolba, head of the United Nations Environment Program, urged delegates on opening day not to focus only on "charismatic large animals," as some say they did three years ago.

Still, large animals drew the most attention. This year, for example, TRAFFIC U.S.A., one of the animal-protection groups working the CITES meeting, made the bear a focus of its lobbying.

The threat, TRAFFIC argues, is Asians' rising ability to pay for bear parts they treasure as food, medicine and trophy. As far away as Siberia, the United States and Canada, forest rangers are finding bear carcasses with nothing removed but their gallbladders and paws.

Bear paw is a delicacy in Chinese and some other Asian cuisines. Bear bile is believed by Chinese, Japanese and Koreans to have medicinal powers. An ounce of bear's gallbladder can go for up to 18 times the price of an ounce of gold in some parts of Asia.

Bluefin tuna, too, can grow big, to half a ton or more in weight. And they can be stunningly valuable.

A single slice of bluefin tuna, perhaps an inch wide, two or three inches long and a quarter-inch thick, can go for $20 or $30 once a famous sushi chef serves it up.

There was the issue that moved the Japanese to put their desire for a better preservationist image second to pleasing the national palate -- and the fishermen who reap a fortune from their catches.

Japanese fishermen's representatives met delegates to the convention as they arrived and kept after them until Sweden dropped its proposed ban this week. The fishermen's lobby presented Sweden's plan to the Japanese public as an example of foreigners' inability to understand Japanese culture.

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