JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Laos has promised to phase out farms that breed endangered tigers for their body parts, a positive step from a country believed to be a major hub of wildlife trafficking in Asia, conservation groups said Friday.
The announcement by Laotian officials in South Africa came one day before the start of a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.
If implemented, the move could help to curb the illegal trade in tiger bones and other parts used in traditional medicine in areas of Asia, and protect the depleted population of tigers. Conservation groups say there are about 3,900 tigers in the wild.
Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese criminal networks are also involved in tiger farming and trading, according to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which works with Laos on tiger protection, urged other Asian countries with commercial tiger breeding centers to follow the example of Laos.
"This commitment is a great example of a nation showing leadership to end the practice of breeding tigers, and we hope as well bears, to supply the demand for their body parts," said Susan Lieberman, head of the society's delegation at the meeting in Johannesburg of the 183 member countries of CITES.
The countries in the U.N. group have pledged to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
A CITES delegation traveled to Laos in July and concluded that criminal groups use Laos as a transit point to smuggle wildlife parts to other Asian countries. It also said the import and export of such items allegedly occurs in violation of CITES rules.
"Law enforcement authorities (in Laos) stated that no arrests or prosecutions related to illegal trade in rhino horn, elephant ivory and other wildlife specimens have occurred in the country since 2012," a CITES document said. Laotian officials said other nations in the trafficking chain should use their more abundant resources to help Laos and stop illegal trade, according to the document.
TRAFFIC, a conservation group, said the illegal trade in two other species — the pangolin, a burrowing mammal, and the helmeted hornbill, a rainforest bird — is also rife in Laos.
Pangolins are targeted for their meat, as well as scales that are used in traditional medicine to promote blood circulation, reduce swelling and treat other illnesses.
In Beijing, a practitioner of traditional medicine said his practices developed over thousands of years, but he and his colleagues are thinking of replacements for parts of endangered animals.
"It's no problem to use some bugs in the medicine if it can treat diseases," said Hu Guang, who writes prescriptions for his patients with an ink brush. "Why would you use some endangered animals as medicine? It is just not necessary."
AP videojournalist Peng Peng in Beijing contributed.
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