LIKE modern-day Noahs, more than 100 nations will meet next month in Japan to pick a new batch of wild species in need of being saved from global traders.
While the North American black bear, the bluefin tuna, the mahagony tree, and even the Venus fly-trap are among the species being nominated for protection under an international treaty, also at stake is whether the African elephant will lose its present protection.
Six southern African nations with healthy elephant populations - Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe - want to lift a ban on trade in ivory that took effect two years ago. The World Wildlife Fund, which opposes the move, points to a danger from elephant poachers in other African nations.
The elephant debate will be just one of many for delegates from nearly 112 nations when they meet in Kyoto from March 2 to 13 under a treaty known as CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Species of Flora and Fauna.
Japan, which seeks to shed its image as an "eco-outlaw" despite being the world's largest importer of wildlife and wildlife products, is more than just the host for this year's meeting. It stands to lose a valuable amount of trade in tuna, timber, wild birds, and other species if some proposals are accepted. Its large ivory-carving industry is also eager to resume imports of ivory.
"We don't know if CITES is the best way to protect wildlife," says Tetsuo Kondo, a Japanese official coordinating the conference. "We cannot neglect the welfare of the people in nations which export wildlife." He warns that CITES might collapse if "extreme" views of environmentalists are adopted.
This CITES meeting, the eighth since 1975, has taken on a new political intensity compared to past ones. Over 300 environmentalists are expected to closely track the event, which is seen as a measure of global attitudes toward the environment before this June's "earth summit" in Brazil.
In addition, wildlife-exporting nations are taking the offensive. Five southern African nations want any CITES action to first consider the views of exporting nations, or "range states" as they are called. As almost a half-joke, they propose that herring be listed as endangered, a slap against herring-eating nations of the northern hemisphere that want protection for elephants.
A Swedish proposal to protect the Atlantic bluefin tuna, which provides an estimated one-third of Japan's tuna supply, has triggered aggressive opposition by Tokyo officials, who claim CITES has no role in regulating fishing.
But overfishing of the bluefin tuna in the western Atlantic has reduced its population by at least three-quarters.
"If tuna were a land species, there would be no question that it needs protection," says Andrea Gaski, biologist for TRAFFIC, which monitors CITES enforcement for the World Wildlife Fund.
One proposal to put three species of Southeast Asia trees under CITES regulation has also irked Japan, the largest importer of tropical timber. Not only might the move possibly reduce Japan's access to rainforest timber, but it would also undercut the authority of the International Tropical Timber Organization, which is largely funded by Japan.
Japanese officials also criticize as "out of line" a United States proposal to suspend trade for a few dozen species of wild birds that easily perish during shipment.
One proposal supported by Japan would list several bear species for CITES regulation in order to help curtail a damaging trade in bear gall bladders among many Asian nations. The trade threatens a Japanese bear species.
Japan is criticized by TRAFFIC for its lax enforcement of CITES rules by customs officials. But officials say the trade is too big to avoid problems.
"We issue 20,000 permits a year to import wild species," says Masahiko Isono of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. "It's difficult to manage."