Why in God's Name?

U.S. May Expand Access To Endangered Species

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2003; Page A01

The Bush administration is proposing far-reaching changes to conservation policies that would allow hunters, circuses and the pet industry to kill, capture and import animals on the brink of extinction in other countries.

Giving Americans access to endangered animals, officials said, would feed the gigantic U.S. demand for live animals, skins, parts and trophies, and generate profits that would allow poor nations to pay for conservation of the remaining animals and their habitat.

This and other proposals that pursue conservation through trade would, for example, open the door for American trophy hunters to kill the endangered straight-horned markhor in Pakistan; license the pet industry to import the blue fronted Amazon parrot from Argentina; permit the capture of endangered Asian elephants for U.S. circuses and zoos; and partially resume the trade in African ivory. No U.S. endangered species would be affected.

Conservationists think it's a bad idea. "It's a very dangerous precedent to decide that wildlife exploitation is in the best interest of wildlife," said Adam Roberts, a senior research associate at the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, an advocacy group for endangered species.

Killing or capturing even a few animals is hardly the best way to protect endangered species, conservationists say. Many charge that the policies cater to individuals and businesses that profit from animal exploitation.

The latest proposal involves an interpretation of the Endangered Species Act that deviates radically from the course followed by Republican and Democratic administrations since President Richard M. Nixon signed the act in 1973. The law established broad protection for endangered species, most of which are not native to America, and effectively prohibited trade in them.

Kenneth Stansell, assistant director for international affairs at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said there has been a growing realization that the Endangered Species Act provides poor countries no incentive to protect dying species. Allowing American hunters, circuses and the pet industry to pay countries to take fixed numbers of animals from the wild can help protect the remaining animals, he said.

U.S. officials note that such trade is already open to hunters, pet importers and zoos in other Western nations. They say the idea is supported by poor countries that are home to the endangered species and would benefit from the revenue.

Officials at the Department of Interior and Fish and Wildlife, who are spearheading many of the new policies, said the proposals merely implement rarely used provisions in the law.

"This is absolutely consistent with the Endangered Species Act, as written," said David P. Smith, deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. "I think the nature of the beast is such that there are critics who are going to claim some kind of ulterior motive."

Animal welfare advocates question the logic of the new approach, saying that foreign countries and groups that stand to profit will be in charge of determining how many animals can be killed or captured. Advocates also warn that opening the door to legal trade will allow poaching to flourish.

"As soon as you place a financial price on the head of wild animals, the incentive is to kill the animal or capture them," Roberts said. "The minute people find out they can have an easier time killing, shipping and profiting from wildlife, they will do so."

The proposals also trigger a visceral response: To many animal lovers, these species have emotional and symbolic value, and should never be captured or killed.

The Endangered Species Act prohibits removing domestic endangered species from the wild. Until now, that protection was extended to foreign species. Explaining the change, Stansell said, "There is a recognition that these sovereign nations have a different way of managing their natural resources."

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