The fate of elephants, rhinoceroses and other imperiled species could be decided in the coming days at a major meeting on wildlife trade regulation in Bangkok. Beginning March 3, delegates from the 178 countries that have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, dubbed CITES, will gather to consider proposals to increase or decrease protection not only for iconic mammals but also for such organisms as sharks, turtles and timber species.

The summit comes at a time when trade in ivory and other animal parts is exploding, fueled by growing demand from increasingly wealthy Asia, where such products have long been prized for decorative and medicinal uses. Because of this uptick in demand, poaching of some species has reached record highs. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), some 30,000 African elephants a year are being slaughtered for their tusks. Last year 668 rhinos were lost to poachers in South Africa alone—50 percent more than in 2011. And 2013 is set to break the 2012 record, with another 128 rhinos already killed for their horns, which fetch as much as $65,000 per kilogram on the black market--more than diamonds or cocaine. At these poaching rates, Africa’s elephants and rhinos could be gone in a couple decades by some estimates. In 2011 two subspecies, Africa’s western black rhino and the Javan rhinoceros of Vietnam, were declared extinct, mainly due to poaching.

That the CITES meeting is taking place in Thailand is significant. The Asian nation is a major gateway for illicit trade in animals. Every year officials there seize tens of thousands of live animals—from turtles to tigers—from smugglers who stuff them into clothing, suitcases and crates for air transport out of the country. Illegal elephant ivory and rhino horn are routinely seized in large quantities, too.

Thailand also has a burgeoning legal ivory market, thanks to its laws that permit the sale of ivory from domestic elephants. Much of the ivory is sold to foreign tourists in curio shops. Critics charge that criminals exploit the laws that allow this trade to launder illegal ivory from African elephants. Indeed outside pressure on Thailand to ban the ivory trade altogether has been mounting in the days leading up to the CITES meeting. The WWF and wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC recently issued a statement calling for economic sanctions against countries that fail to curb their ivory markets, naming Thailand, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as prime offenders. And on Febuary 27 the WWF presented Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra with a petition to ban the country’s ivory trade altogether. The petition contained more than half a million signatures. The New York Times reports that a statement from Thailand about a shift in its ivory policy is expected at the opening of the CITES gathering.

Meanwhile, South Africa is considering lifting the ban on rhino horn trade and commercially farming the animals in a bid to save the animals. “The reality of the matter is rhino horn is being poached in South Africa right now,” environment minister Edna Molewatold said in a media briefing, according to AFP. “There’s a moratorium on trade in South Africa but they still get it out of South Africa. So we are saying let’s look at other mechanisms.”

Most of the demand for rhino horn comes from China and Vietnam, where it is used to treat ailments ranging from headaches to cancer. The horn has no real curative powers, however--it is composed of keratin, the same material human fingernails are made of.

Some researchers see promise in legalizing the trade of rhino horn. Writing in the March 1 Science, Duan Biggs of the University of Queensland in Australia and his colleagues argued that “The only remaining option is a carefully regulated legal trade based on the humane and renewable harvesting of horn from live white rhinos.” The team proposes that the current estimated demand for the horn could be met by collecting horn material from the 5,000 white rhinos that are currently kept on private conservation lands in South Africa. Sedating an animal to shave its horn, which will grow back, costs around $20, they note. “A legal trade could simultaneously supply horns, fund rhino protection, and provide an incentive for their sustainable use and long-term survival,” Biggs and his co-authors write, adding that the “trade in crocodile skin is an example of how a legal market has reduced poaching pressure on wild populations.”

But conservation groups have expressed concern over the idea of legalizing the rhino horn trade. "We don't support the idea of legalised trade at this time because we just don't think it is enforceable," wildlife trade policy analyst Colman O'Criodain of the WWF told BBC News. "The markets where the trade would be directed, particularly Vietnam, we aren't satisfied that they have the enforcement regime in place that would prevent the laundering of wild rhino through this route," he said, adding, "we don't think it would stop the poaching crisis, we think the legal trade could make it worse."

Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, told NBC News that a more effective approach to saving rhinos would be to focus on breaking apart the crime networks that control the elephant ivory trade. "If you do that, you also get the rhino poaching under control because it is the same organized crime groups that are doing this," he said. Wasser’s work in genetically tracking the origin of seized ivory indicates that the poachers are concentrating their efforts in a few hotspots. If so, focusing law enforcement efforts on these hotspots could be the best way to stop poaching.

Debate around how to tackle illegal wildlife trade will no doubt be intense at the CITES meeting, which runs from March 3 to March 14. I noticed that among the 70 proposals[PDF] up for consideration are 10 that recommend removal of species from CITES protection because they have gone extinct. Let’s hope the elephants and rhinos don’t end up on such proposals at future summits.

Update (03/03/13 at 2:42 p.m.): In her speech at the opening of the CITES meeting, Thailand's Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, pledged to amend Thai legislation to help end the ivory trade, but did not mention a timeline or an intent to specifically ban domestic trade in ivory. See this BBC report for more details.