LONDON (Reuters) - China's economic boom is fuelling demand for endangered species ranging from tigers to African timbers even though Beijing imposes the death penalty for wildlife crimes, the head of a U.N. watchdog said on Tuesday.
Growing affluence means that more and more Chinese are able to afford exotic foods such as snakes, reptiles and frogs or buy traditional medicines like tiger bone wine believed by many in China to help lower blood pressure.
In China "more and more people get access to these expensive food stuffs," Willem Wijnstekers, head of the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangerered Species (CITES), told a Reuters environment summit.
"Both within China and in neighboring countries there is a lot disappearing," he said.
"Africa is full of Chinese wood buyers and the forests are rapidly disappearing in the direction of China as well," he said. Timber is used both in China and for exports including furniture sold to nations from Europe to North America.
But he said that China had stringent penalties. "They have the death penalty for wildlife crime and they have used it," he said. "I'm not going to promote the death penalty for CITES but they really take it seriously."
"They've got hundreds of people involved at borders. But (China's) so huge," he said, adding that trying to stop wildlife smuggling into China was like trying to mop up water from the floor with the tap running.
Elsewhere, he also said that economic growth was stoking demand for endangered species, such as demand for caviar in Russia. "Caviar is a quarter the price in Russia as in the rest of the world," he said.
Wijnstekers also said that worries about global warming were distracting the world from other environmental problems such as smuggling, pollution or habitat destruction.
"Climate change is getting too much of the attention, compared to other environmental problems," he said.
Wijnstekers also criticized China's tiger farms, which have about 5,000 of the cats against just 30 in the wild. Farmed tigers, he said, were unsuitable for China's stated plan of helping bolster depleted wild stocks.
And many environmentalists fear the farms stoke an illegal domestic market.
Wijnstekers said that CITES, which originally focused on protecting creatures such as pandas or elephants, was likely to keep widening its efforts to protect commercial species in a billion-dollar market.
He said that more South American and Asian timber species and more species of sharks might be candidates for trade restrictions when CITES' 176 member nations next meet in 2010.
Despite worries about smuggling, he said he was likely to recommend that China be accepted next year as an ivory importer alongside Japan, which is currently the sole legal destination for a planned sale of African ivory stocks.
A vote on whether to let China import ivory will be made in July 2008. "If the Chinese this time were able to bid against the Japanese then the countries allowed to sell could make more money out of ivory," he said.