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U.S. plans legal endangered species trade

Fish and Wildlife says move would promote conservation

Asian elephant
The Asian elephant is in increasing demand from U.S. zoos and circuses, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to change its policy to permit the importation of endangered species, their parts and products from countries that promote wildlife conservation programs.

Such a program could give incentives to countries to create stronger wildlife and habitat programs, the agency said in its draft rule, which is open for public comment until October 17. But some conservationists see the policy as a bad precedent and predicted it will face strong opposition.

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 to protect animals facing extinction in the wild.

The act currently prohibits the capture, import, sale and killing of endangered species without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those who request permits must demonstrate that their proposed activity would enhance the survival of the species in the wild and that the animals won't be used primarily for commercial purposes.

The Endangered Species Act has largely kept zoos and circuses from buying endangered species to use in shows or for the purpose of caging them. It also protects endangered species from trophy hunters.

Under the proposed change, money spent by U.S. zoos and circuses to import the endangered animals could be used support conservation projects abroad, the agency said.

Hunters, zoos, circuses and traders in wild animal products could benefit from the policy, the service said in a posting on its Web site.

Species involved in the service's "proposed enhancement-of-survival policy" include the Asian elephant in India, southeast Asia and China; the Morelet's crocodile in Mexico; the Asian bonytongue fish in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia; the wood bison in Canada; and the markhor, a member of the goat family, in Pakistan.

Citing worsening breeding problems among captive Asian elephants in the United States, the agency said there is increased demand among zoos and circuses for additional stock from Asia. Meanwhile, there is a "surplus" of elephants in many countries, where officials face a crisis over how to handle the problem.

Adam Roberts, a senior research associate at the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, an advocacy group for endangered species, called the proposed policy "a horribly dangerous precedent, a wrong-headed conservation policy propelled by the circus and zoo, trophy-hunting lobby in the United States and others who want to profit by the commercialization of live animals or dead ones."

"Eco-tourism" activities -- such as safaris and whale-watching trips -- generate more income than would trophy-hunting and whale killing, he said.


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