msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/9/2004 12:40:12 PM ET 2004-09-09T16:40:12

Hoping to raise the profile of certain endangered species ahead of an international conference, the World Wildlife Fund on Thursday issued an updated list of wildlife most often bought, sold, smuggled, killed or captured for the global marketplace.

The Swiss-based group urged governments to agree to restrict trade in obscure species, which have a high market value as culinary delicacies, aphrodisiacs or pets.

“WWF is asking for lesser-known wildlife ... to be regulated to ensure it does not join the ranks of the magnificent tiger and Asian elephant, both on the verge of extinction,” it said in a statement released with the list.

The WWF’s call for tougher rules comes a month before the United Nations CITES agency meets in Bangkok to approve limits in trade in such well-known species as the great white shark and the Asian elephant.

CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — already has a virtual ban on trade in tigers, tiger skins and tiger parts, although the animals are still killed and sold illegally.

'More obscure species' sought
But the WWF said such unlikely candidates as the humphead wrasse — a bulbous-headed reef fish displayed live in tanks for diners in East Asia — and the giant freshwater pig-nosed turtle, popular with pet-owners, also faced extinction.

"As well-known species have become overexploited for trade, more obscure species are increasingly targeted," Ginette Hemley, a WWF species specialist, said in the statement. "So lesser-known wildlife like the humphead wrasse — a fascinating coral reef fish whose fleshy lips have spawned a dining trend — join the magnificent tiger and Asian elephant on the list of most wanted species in trade.”

HUMPHEAD WRASSE FISH
Courtesy Of Genevieve Johnson  /  Ocean Alliance
A humphead wrasse swims past a diver. The exotic coral fish has large lips that are a delicacy among some Asian diners.
Others included Asia’s irrawaddy dolphins, who get tangled in nets or killed by dynamite fishing, the tropical ramin tree, used in picture frames and pool cues, the Indonesian yellow-crested cockatoo and the Madagascar leaf-tailed gecko.

CITES has 166 member countries and has proposed major changes to a treaty that covers some 30,000 plants and animals.

As the only global treaty regulating trade in threatened and endangered animals and plants, the body manages what is considered the world’s most important wildlife agreement.

It is best known for reducing poaching of African elephants by banning ivory sales in 1989.

The October conference is expected to mark a shift in the decades-old accord towards protecting commercially valuable species — plants and animals that fetch a hefty price on the black market — in addition to “charismatic megafauna” like snow tigers, elephants and great apes.

One of the most important items on the CITES agenda is a Chinese-American proposal to control trade in the Asian yew tree, whose leaves are used to make paclitaxel, a key ingredient for some of the world’s best-selling cancer drugs.

'Most wanted' species
Below is the WWF's "most wanted" list, which was not prepared in any particular order:

  • Tiger: Their numbers have been slashed by an estimated 95 percent over the last century, the WWF said, and perhaps fewer than 5,000 are left in the wild. The biggest threats include poaching for use in traditional Chinese medicines. Tiger bone, for example, is used as a pain reliever. Tiger skins are also highly prized.
  • Humphead wrasse: Its large lips are a delicacy fetching hundreds of dollars a plate in East Asia, the WWF said, and demand has grown steadily in recent years. The species is naturally rare and slow to reproduce, making it even more vulnerable.
  • Great white shark: Its jaws, teeth, leather and fins collect high prices worldwide. A second threat is unintended capture in fishing gear.
  • Ramin tree: Found in Indonesia and Malaysia, this hardwood is used to make pool cues, moldings, doors and picture frames. Logging is often illegal, the WWF said, and also endangers the tigers, orangutans and other species living in those areas.
  • Pig-nosed turtle: Found in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia, this giant freshwater turtle has become a popular pet. In addition to juvenile turtles being snatched for trade, the turtles’ nests are robbed of their eggs, which are eaten, the WWF said.
  • Yellow-crested cockatoo: Found in Indonesia, these birds are taken from the wild "at unsustainable levels" to supply the pet market and the population has been reduced to fewer than 10,000, the WWF said. Indonesia is seeking to ban all international trade because the cockatoo is so threatened.
  • Asian elephant: Habitat loss and poaching for ivory and meat remain a "serious problem" in many Asian countries, the group said. The population stands at between 35,000 and 50,000 in the wild, perhaps a tenth of the African elephants.
  • Irrawaddy dolphin: Entanglement in fishing nets and injury from explosives used for dynamite fishing endanger this extremely rare species, the WWF said, adding that there is also unsustainable demand for the dolphin for display in zoos and aquariums.
  • Leaf-tailed gecko: Found only in Madagascar, these lizards are being caught at "alarming rates" for the pet trade, the WWF said. Habitat loss also threatens the species.
  • Asian yew tree: These are "unsustainably harvested" for their bark and needles, which contain a chemical used in the cancer medication Taxol, the WWF stated.

The group said the tiger, Asian elephant and a few other species have remained on its biennial "most wanted list" over the past decade. "Other species, such as ramin and great white shark, have moved onto the list because of a dramatic increase in demand for their products on global markets," it stated.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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