To the relief of scientists, an international trade body has decided to eliminate much of the red tape that has hindered the shipment of biological samples for research on endangered species. A proposal to enable certain institutes to get rush permits in urgent cases was approved today at a meeting in Santiago de Chile.
The strict regulations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) aim to prevent smuggling of animal parts. But as a side effect, they also hamper research on endangered species. Scientists often wait weeks or even months before being allowed to send blood, hair, or feathers from the field back to their home labs--no matter how urgent the need for diagnostic tests. The first proposal to simplify the procedure was rejected 2 years ago at the last CITES meeting in Nairobi (Science, 28 April 2000, p. 592), but it has since been refined in the organization's committees.
The new resolution clearly specifies what kinds of samples, what quantities, and what purposes will qualify for a simplified and expedited permit. Biological samples must be "urgently required in the interest of an individual animal" and have a "negligible impact on the conservation of the species concerned." In order to prevent misuse, every country participating in CITES must provide a list of institutions that will be eligible. The proposal covers shipments of blood, secretions, hair, feathers, and tissues but explicitly excludes ova, sperm, and embryos. Nevertheless, the proposal faced strong opposition from countries such as Mexico, Brazil, and China, which feared that it could allow uncontrolled access to genetic resources. But the proposal passed the committee's vote and was approved by the plenum.
"This is astonishingly far-reaching" says elephant researcher Thomas Hildebrandt of the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. The proposal will greatly simplify the formalities, he says. But the proposal is still just a recommendation to participating countries, warns Thomas Althaus of the Swiss Federal Veterinary Office, one of the authors of the proposal. Many countries such as Thailand and the United States have trade-control institutions that impose their own restrictions. But Hildebrandt is confident that "the resolution gives us a stronger tool to pressure the authorities."