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Soaring peregrine falcon population pivotal to conservation discussions

At a conference beginning on Saturday, the Canadian government will call for the international trade in peregrine falcons to be permitted again.

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Wildlife conservationist Peter Ewins remembers finding abandoned nests and broken eggs when he searched for peregrine falcons in the 1980s in places where they had nested for centuries.

The world's fastest animal, a magnificent raptor that can hit speeds of nearly 400 kilometres an hour as it swoops on its prey, had tumbled to the brink of extinction as a result of devastating damage from pesticides.

But at a conference beginning on Saturday, the Canadian government will call for the international trade in peregrine falcons to be permitted again. It is a testament to the success of conservation efforts – and a potential boost for a global treaty that is battling to prevent the extinction of elephants, rhinoceroses and other animals.

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The treaty, known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), is one of the last lines of defence for animal species that face an overwhelming threat from poachers and traffickers. An alarming rise in the illegal trade of elephant ivory and rhino horn, among other products, will be a key focus for the 183 nations that gather in Johannesburg for the start of the 12-day conference.

For the treaty to keep its credibility in regions such as Africa and Asia, where trafficking has escalated, it needs success stories. And Canadian officials believe they have found three such stories: the peregrine falcon, the wood bison and the cougar. Canada is proposing that CITES should loosen its restrictions on the global trade of all three species.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but analysts say the loosened restrictions on newly healthy species could strengthen the CITES treaty, offering an incentive to hesitant officials and discouraging key nations from dropping out.

Canada argues, for example, that a controlled trade in peregrines can be allowed because the world now has at least 228,000 adult peregrines, and the trade would be insufficient to threaten them.

The pesticides that reduced raptors' fertility and made their egg shells brittle are no longer used in Canada.

Mr. Ewins, a conservation specialist at WWF-Canada who has studied the peregrine falcon for decades, said he is "relieved and delighted" that some species have rebounded to the point where the trade ban can be lifted.

"There are very few examples of this in the world," he said. "It's the beacon shining down the path we need to tread."

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In fact, the near-extinction of the bird has led to a new niche that Canada helped pioneer: the urban peregrine. In 1995, Mr. Ewins discovered a pair of peregrines nesting near the top of the Sheraton Centre hotel in downtown Toronto. Today, there are seven or eight breeding pairs on the ledges of Toronto's tall buildings, and many others in cities across the country, often hatching their eggs live on web cameras as enthralled viewers watch.

Good-news stories such as the peregrine falcon can boost support for CITES at a time when the global treaty is under pressure in divisive debates over how to respond to a deadly epidemic of poaching and trafficking.

A recent census found a shocking 30-per-cent decline in the elephant population since 2007 in the African countries covered by the survey. Hunters are illegally slaughtering Africa's elephants at the alarming rate of 20,000 to 30,000 a year, mainly to feed the Asian demand for ivory.

Three countries in southern Africa – Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa – are asking CITES to allow them to trade their ivory stockpiles. They see this as an incentive for their conservation of elephant habitat. But an opposing coalition of 29 African nations is calling for a complete ban on the ivory trade.

The result, according to the South African Institute of International Affairs, could be a "firecracker political drama" at the CITES meeting. This, in turn, could distract attention from other efforts to save endangered species. Even the tabling of the ivory-trade proposal could send the wrong signal by legitimizing the idea of ivory sales, analysts say.

A similar fight could be looming on rhinos. Swaziland is asking CITES to allow it to sell rhino horn – a proposal that will spark another fierce debate, since many experts are worried that legalization would further fuel demand. Less than 25,000 rhinos remain in Africa. A record total of 1,338 rhinos were killed by poachers in Africa last year alone.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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