Curbing the trade in "blood ivory" is at the top of the agenda during the global biodiversity conference, which lasts two weeks. Around 70 proposals are on the table, most of which will decide whether member nations increase or lower the level of protection on various species. These include polar bears, rays and sharks that are heavily fished for shark fin soup.
There are proposals, too, to regulate 200 commercially valuable timber species — half from Madagascar — and ban their trade unless it can be shown they were harvested legally and sustainably.
Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, said up to 90 percent of the world's timber trade is illegal, a business worth at least $30 billion per year.
Illegal wildlife trafficking is also at crisis levels, and the world must clamp down hard to stop it or risk losing some of the planet's most iconic species, like elephants, he said.
"The backdrop against which this meeting takes place should be a very serious wakeup call for all of us," Steiner told some 2,000 delegates assembled at a convention center in the Thai capital.
Wildlife trafficking "in a terrible way has become a trade and a business of enormous proportions — a billion-dollar trade in wildlife species that is analogous to that of the trade in drugs and arms," Steiner said. "This is not a small matter. It is driven by a conglomerate of crime syndicates across borders."
Prior to the establishment of CITES in 1973, there was no international regulation of the cross-border wildlife trade. CITES officials say their aim is not to outlaw the buying and selling of flora and fauna, but to ensure it remains sustainable as the world's population explodes.
CITES Director-General John Scanlon said the slaughter of African elephants and rhinos was among the group's greatest concerns. He said poachers, rebel militias and mafia-like crime syndicates that smuggle animal parts across borders could wipe out the species.
"This criminal activity poses a serious threat to the stability and economies of these countries. It also robs these countries of their natural heritage," Scanlon said. "These criminals must be stopped, and we need to prepare to deploy the sorts of techniques that are used to combat the trade in narcotics to do so."
"We know the way. We now need the collective will," Scanlon said. "Right here, right now in Bangkok is when we must come together to turn the tables on serious wildlife crime."