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U.S. Seeks Looser Rules on Wild Animal Imports

Limited trade in items from endangered species is urged to help foreign conservation efforts.

October 13, 2003|Alan C. Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a break with long-standing practice, the Bush administration is proposing to permit limited imports of endangered wild animals as hunting trophies and commercial products, potentially ranging from skins for leather handbags to aquarium pets.

The policy shift is intended to provide incentives for poor countries to expand established conservation programs with profits from the sale of live animals, as well as parts and trophies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said.

The change would not affect endangered species in the United States.

In the past, the U.S. government permitted certain species on the verge of extinction abroad to be brought into the United States for research, breeding and educational purposes. But this would be the first time in the 30-year history of the Endangered Species Act that this country has allowed such animals killed in the wild to be imported.

Many conservation groups are intensely opposed to the proposal and express skepticism that allowing increased trade will result in greater preservation. Among their concerns is that expanding legalized exploitation will spur illegal smuggling.

"This is an absolutely radical departure from what they've been doing up to this point," said Carroll Muffett, director of international programs for Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington-based nonprofit conservation group. "This would throw open the door to allow imports potentially of any of 500 endangered species."

Supporters of increased imports of endangered species include pro-hunting activists, zoological organizations and countries with endangered species, officials said. Other Western nations permit such trade.

Under its interpretation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service maintains that it already has the authority to approve the import permits but now seeks to broaden the circumstances under which it will do so.

The agency's proposal, first reported in the Washington Post, states that it will grant permits only when the host country has supported "a substantive conservation program" that has benefited the species or its habitat and when doing so will "further promote and advance the conservation of the species" in that country.

The agency has already approved scores of such permits annually under the law for threatened species, whose populations have declined but are not yet deemed endangered, officials said. These have included permits for argyle sheep and African elephants.

Among the endangered species that officials cite as candidates for import under the proposed policy are the Morelet's crocodile, found off the coast of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, whose skin is valued for leather goods; the straight-horned markhor, a wild goat in Pakistan prized by sport hunters; and the Asian bonytongue, a tropical freshwater fish native to Southeast Asia that is popular with hobbyists.

In each case, officials said, the population has been increased through a program of captive breeding or habitat protection.

The proposal also mentioned the Asian elephant, found in India, Southeast Asia and China, which is in demand by zoos and circuses in the United States because captive breeding domestically "has not been very successful."

"We're talking about a very limited application, particularly to start with, to see if it encourages conservation," said Kenneth B. Stansell, assistant director for international affairs at the Fish and Wildlife Service. "I can't imagine we would have more than a few if we actually go forward."

Stansell said that this idea had been "evolving in the Fish and Wildlife Service for the last five to six years" and was not the result of lobbying or pressure within the Bush administration, which has come under fire for its environmental policies.

The administration will decide whether to proceed with the change after Oct. 17, the close of the public comment period for the proposal.

Craig Hoover, deputy director of Traffic North America, the trade-monitoring program of the World Wildlife Fund, said his organization "would be supportive of trade in endangered species if there was good, solid evidence that that trade was specifically benefiting the species in the wild."

Unlike other conservation groups that oppose any trade in imperiled wildlife, he said, his organization recognizes that many of these species face myriad threats, including habitat loss and pollution, regardless of what happens with trade.

But he said the pending federal proposal failed to spell out how the Fish and Wildlife Service would determine that permitting imports actually enhanced a species' chances for survival.

"The million-dollar question here," Hoover said, "is exactly how far does this policy push the envelope?"

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