DO WE NEED to hunt elephants to ensure their survival? Must we "harvest" whales to conserve them?

While such propositions sound self-contradictory, they are logical extensions of the rapidly spreading philosophy of wildlife management called "sustainable use."According to this concept, wildlife must "pay its way." Conservationists, it is said, now believe that the best way to save wildlife is to give it economic value through trade in live or dead animals or their parts.

And "sustainable use" has become a rallying cry for big-game hunters, ivory dealers and fur peddlers - as well as some of the world's biggest conservation organizations.

The recently concluded Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) gives us clear signals of what lies ahead on the road to "sustainable use."

CITES, which boasts 124 signatory nations, is the broadest and most significant international agreement protecting imperiled wildlife from excessive international trade.

At the November 1994 conference, however, the parties agreed to quotas for trophy hunting of leopards and cheetahs, two of the world's most critically endangered species. CITES protection for the southern white rhinoceros was reduced to allow international trade in trophies and live rhinos. There are about 5,000 southern white rhinos left in the world.

Elsewhere, the principle of sustainable use is being used to promote changes in the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow renewed commercial killing of whales, seals, sea otters, polar bears, and other ocean mammals. (An amendment allowing the importation of polar bear trophies became law last summer.)

Meanwhile, the International Whaling Commission, with the support of the U.S. government, has adopted a "revised management scheme" to manage the commercial killing of whales, if and when the current moratorium on commercial whaling is overturned.

But "sustainable use" has a deep problem. In this world, it doesn't work.

An examination of the species and populations of animals that have been used "sustainably" shows that almost without exception, they have been decimated, depleted and destroyed.

"Maximum sustained yield" has been the byword of modern fisheries management for decades, yet fish populations and fishing towns are dying on both coasts of North America.

The simple fact is that wildlife is not productive enough to significantly bolster the economies of developing nations or to meet the demands of consumers in developed nations.

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There is, of course, true sustainable use - humane sustainable use, as I call it - such as carefully controlled eco-tou-rism in wildlife and wilderness areas. Indeed, whale and dolphin watching generate more than $300 million in revenues every year, and wildlife-viewing tourists bring more than $400 million annually to Kenya, with elephants alone accounting for some $25 million.

In some cases, ecotoursim might enable wildlife to generate more dollars living than dead.

Regardless, a civilized world must reject the destructive use of wildlife, instead embracing the wild creatures who add so much beauty, variety and pleasure to our lives.

Otherwise, we will one day awaken, too late, to find that our precious wildlife heritage has been stolen from us by those who know the price of every creature but the value of none.

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