SOMEWHERE in the world today, a bear will be killed for its gall bladder, a tiger for its bones to be used in an ancient remedy. Parrots and other birds will be stuffed into cages for export as pets, sea turtles destroyed to make boots and shoehorns, a rhino slaughtered just so its horn can be carved into a dagger handle.
Such items are part of a $5 billion-to-$8 billion annual business in wildlife that experts say has decimated many species around the world and continues to do so despite efforts to crack down.
``Rhinos, tigers, Asian bears, and many other species are on the brink of extinction,'' says Steve Trent of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a private conservation group based in London and Washington. ``The consumer boom in the European Union, North America, and the Far East is creating a black hole for endangered species.''
Meeting in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., through next week, the 124 countries that make up the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) are looking for ways to slow down the rate of poaching.
In force since 1975, CITES is meant to control trade in plants and animals and their products. There have been some successes. Export quotas and ranching have brought increases in some species of wild crocodiles. A 1990 ban on ivory trade, together with a crackdown on poaching, has helped stem the loss of African elephants, whose numbers plummeted from 1.2 million in 1970 to about 600,000 today.
Still, CITES is without real teeth, critics charge. Many countries lack the will or resources for enforcement. And in some areas, reformers are dealing with thousands of years of practice and tradition.
This is particularly true of the Asian medicinal trade, which is largely uncontrolled and growing in such countries as China, Taiwan, and South Korea - and also in United States communities with large Asian populations, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Honolulu.
The World Wildlife Fund earlier this year reported the results of an investigation of such trade, which is estimated to total several billion dollars a year. The conservation group identified at least 600 different medicines produced by more than 100 manufacturers. Two-thirds of those medicines contained ingredients from endangered, threatened, or protected species - including rhino, tiger, musk deer, leopard, antelope, and bear.
``Thousands of species are used in traditional medicines,'' said World Wildlife Fund president Kathryn Fuller. ``Despite international bans, illegal trade in those species goes largely unchecked in most parts of the world.''
The fall of communism has added to the problem. In some game preserves in the former Soviet Union, according to Russian environmental activist Olga Maiboroda, game wardens whose salaries were cut have themselves turned to poaching.
In addition, adds Ms. Maiboroda, who came to the University of Montana for graduate study, ``Poaching has been encouraged by foreign hunters who can offer hard currency.''
There now are estimated to be fewer than 250 Siberian tigers remaining in the wild. Among the other species of wildlife whose numbers have dropped to dangerously low levels:
Rhinos. Their numbers have been cut by 90 percent since 1970, with fewer than 2,000 remaining in India, 400 to 500 in Sumatra, 100 in Java, and about 8,000 in Africa.
Reptiles. Nearly half the $1.2 billion annual US trade in wildlife is in reptiles and reptile-leather products. Conservative estimates put the figures at 1 million to 2 million live reptiles, 3 million to 4 million whole skins, and 25 million to 30 million manufactured products. Most come from Asia and South America, including the endangered black caiman.
Parrots. Of the 330 species worldwide, at least 40 face extinction due to trade and loss of habitat.
``A sudden explosion in the international pet and collector trade in the last two to three years has wiped out an estimated one-third of the population,'' the World Wildlife Fund reported last month. The organization's annual ``Ten Most Wanted'' list of species threatened by international trade also included the giant panda, Asiatic black bear, and Hawksbill sea turtle.
According to recent reports, organized crime groups have become involved in wildlife poaching, especially in Russia.
In August, the Clinton administration banned the import of certain animal products from Taiwan and threatened trade sanctions if that country does not crack down on the trade in rhinoceros horns and tiger parts. Last month, Congress authorized $10 million to help protect tigers and black rhinos.
US government sued
The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund last week sued the US government, alleging that it failed to investigate evidence that Mexico is allowing the killing of endangered sea turtles. Brought under a 1978 law called the Pelly Amendment, this suit could test some provisions of the more recent North American Free Trade Agreement.
Also helping the fight against poachers are recent scientific advances. Investigators have used DNA tests to distinguish legal from illegal whale meat. Using sophisticated microscopes, they also are now able to tell elephant ivory from ancient ivory that comes from mastodons or mammoths (and can be traded legally).
At the CITES meeting currently under way in Florida, there are more than 100 proposals to add species to lists of those either banned from trade or regulated. The conference also is examining a report of convention infractions totaling more than 100 pages. To reduce such infractions, the British delegation is calling for special wildlife enforcement units as part of ``an action-oriented approach'' to poaching and illegal trade.
Says Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigations Agency, ``If we cannot get decisive CITES action to strengthen international wildlife enforcement at the meeting, delegates will have wasted their time.''