Commentary: The story that almost didn’t get told

My perception of what’s “normal” changed after meeting a 17-year-old-boy with mild autism, writes Lam Shushan – but not before I nearly quit on him.

SINGAPORE: We sat in the living room in silence, flashing polite smiles at each other every now and then. I looked at the big wall-mounted clock in front of me, and tapped my feet on the cold concrete floor as I waited for time to pass.

“This is going to be awkward,” I thought to myself.

It was the first time I was meeting 17-year-old Chester Sim, someone whom I had gone to great lengths to be introduced to for my assignment. I wanted to know more about his childhood struggles because of his mild autism, and how he managed to overcome it to integrate into mainstream society despite the challenges.

Yet there I was, not knowing what to say to him, because I didn’t know the right way to approach someone with autism.

WATCH: Not Special, Just Me – A CNA Insider Original


Chester’s mother, Violet, came out of the kitchen with a tray of chilled lime juice, breaking the silence with small talk while handing us each a glass. “Chester, go to your room. Mummy wants to talk to them first okay?” she said.

While waiting for Violet to settle, my colleague Sarah and I looked at our notebooks, going through the list of things we wanted to talk about. We were to produce a long-form video exploring the concept of whether the world of special needs and the world of normal could come together.

Violet had requested to speak to us alone, so that she could go through what we should and should not bring up with Chester. He didn’t like being called “special”, she said, and he didn’t like talking about his childhood because he was bullied a lot, and it was traumatic for him.

With tired eyes, she looked at us and, as though 17 years of sorrow had been held in check, she began to pour her heart out.  

Notes from our first chat with Violet and Chester.

She told us about her joy at giving birth to a boy after having had multiple miscarriages, but grief soon followed when she realised that he was not quite “normal”. At age three, he was diagnosed with mild autism, and Violet’s mother-in-law blamed her for ‘not eating the right things’ when she was pregnant.

She talked about her disbelief, how badly she wished her child to be normal, sending him to a mainstream school even though she knew he would struggle.

With tears in her eyes and a tone of guilt in her voice, she told us about how he was ostracised and bullied for being different, even by the teachers. Slowly, his self-esteem was eroded.

Then she brought out a portfolio of Chester’s drawings – extremely detailed depictions of tentacles and worms that engulfed a boy, violent drawings of guns and angry teachers with long rulers.

“People told me to send him to a psychiatrist, but what can I do? I can’t say, ‘eh can you draw something happier?’. This is just how he portrays the world,” she said. 

One of Chester’s drawings.

Yet there was a softer side of Chester that comforted her. “He’s very helpful. A small little bird or insect, he will say, ‘don’t step on it. Bring it to the grass’, even though he is afraid of insects.”

He likes animals, so I learnt, and has compassion for things that are smaller than he is, evident by the pets they keep at home. On top of fish and a terrapin, they also had an old adopted dog and two frisky cats, which had all gone into hiding upon our arrival.

I started to form an impression of who this boy was. Maybe he was one of those misunderstood savants with great hidden talents; maybe he was one of those extremely smart people that the world needed to see.

Then it was Chester’s turn to talk to us.

Autism is often associated with difficulty in communicating and relating to people or abstract concepts. But with his first few sentences, he came across as well-spoken and confident. He answered questions very thoughtfully. We talked a bit about his school, his hobbies, remembering to be extra sensitive when it came to the “A” word. 

Chester’s portfolio had recurring drawings of people being eaten alive by insects.

He was, in short, “as cool as a cucumber”, as his mother would put it, maintaining a nonchalant view on most issues. “Yeah I was bullied by both teachers and students,” he said matter-of-factly, “but other than that, the discrimination was rather petty.”

Even when we asked about his dark depictions of the underworld in his drawings, he simply replied: “Oh that was the theme for a school project.”

He seemed like any normal teenager – where was this broken and vulnerable boy that Violet was going on about? I was beginning to think that her stories were just the projections of an overprotective mother.


A few days later, I called Violet to follow up. I told her that it was going to be very difficult to tell the story if Chester was so “normal”.

Granted, autism is a spectrum and there are different degrees of severity, but it wouldn’t do justice to all the other kids with autism if we led people to believe that it was something that could be overcome so easily, I felt.

Violet reassured me that Chester’s struggles were real, and that he just needed time to warm up before talking about it. “He may look like there’s nothing wrong, but he has an issue,” she said.

Chester (far right) and his schoolmates with Stephen Wiltshire (far left), the artist who can reproduce sketches of city skylines from memory.

Later, I would reflect upon the irony that perhaps it was people like him – the “normal” looking ones with autism – who in fact suffer in silence because people misunderstand their behaviour all the time. No one really bothers to ask them their story.

But at the time, I simply took Violet’s suggestion to try and get to know Chester better. I tried talking to him on the phone a few times, but our conversations never went beyond making arrangements for the next filming session.

Besides, what would a 17-year-old boy think if a 26-year-old woman kept calling and wanting to be his friend? So I gave up trying. 

The cats in the house often stay close by Chester’s side.

Sarah and I decided to dive straight into the interview and work with whatever we had. But we came up against another road block – Chester did not want to appear on-camera. Even when we got him to agree to be filmed in silhouette, he still seemed reluctant to talk about his past.

This raised a huge dilemma: Why were we making this young boy, who has fought so hard his whole life to fit in, bare his vulnerabilities in front of everyone?

With all these complications, it would have been easier to just drop the story, walk away and look for a more straightforward profile who would let us talk about the things we wanted to talk about. But deep down, we knew that there was a very compelling story to be told, if we just dug deeper.


The next time I went to their house, I went alone. By this time, even the dog had begun warming up to me, greeting me with a wagging tail as I entered. Then Violet said: “Today, Chester is going to show you his room” – a good start to the day.

Chester’s room was lined with shelves of action figures from floor to ceiling – Ultraman Dyna monsters, t-rexes and triceratopses, and other cartoon figurines from the 80s and 90s. It was as though I had stepped into a vintage toy museum – a very peculiar era for a millennial to take an interest in. 

Chester’s collection of action figures, which he sources from second-hand dealers.

As he showed me his collection, I was drawn in by his enthusiasm and how sincere he was about wanting to share his interest with me. I recalled what he’d said about how people judged him for having weird interests. It made me wonder if I had ever been mean to someone who liked things that I didn’t understand.

Then it dawned on me that perhaps the reason why I did not get what I was looking for in the previous interviews, was because I was still looking at him as Chester with autism, and not Chester for who he was.

I had been so fixated on asking the questions that I wanted the answers to. But once I started really listening to him, I was able to enter his world, and his state, where nothing is weird, nothing is abnormal, and we were able to talk a lot more freely.

I began to understand his perspective. He didn’t like to be called “special” not because he was petty and sensitive, but because he simply felt that there was no clear distinction between “special” and normal” anyway.

Ultraman and Dyna monsters among his collection.

Sure he had his quirks, but everyone has theirs, autism or no autism. So is it necessary to have a label for “special” and for “normal”, when the lines are so blurred between every individual?

We continued to chat casually about life. Then, for whatever reason, he decided he was ready to appear on-camera – fully visible, not hidden in shadows. I asked him questions like, “what is the world you see? Does it change according to your mood?”

He told me about his fantasy world and how he liked to imagine himself playing different characters sometimes, to “escape real life”. “It’s no sunshine and unicorns but at the same time it’s not grey and sadness all the time,” he said.

This, to me, would have seemed a very abstract and awkward conversation just a few weeks ago, but now this was his world, and I was trying to understand it. For the first time, I felt that we were on the same wavelength.

So, I asked, how did he eventually manage to fit in? Did it mean having to be someone he wasn’t all the time? No, he said. “Your persona doesn’t always need to be someone you’re not. Actually a persona could just mean being nice.”

That night, Violet invited me to join them for dinner. I had never felt more welcome in a household that barely even knew me. This was a family that had to bear the brunt of the nastier side of society, yet they were so warm and accepting.

Before I left, Violet thanked me for doing this, firstly because she wanted to help other families going through the same thing, but also because it helped they themselves reflect on what they had been through.


I started on this assignment thinking that there was my world, the “normal” world, and there was the “special” world. And my story was to see if people from the “special” world could really function in society.

What I’ve discovered is that there aren’t two worlds – that’s a false, even dangerous, dichotomy – and we just have to expand our definition of normal.

People with mild autism like Chester may not have the same social habits or behaviour as most of us, but does that justify our fear, contempt or ignorance that makes us label and ostracise them? What we see as weird or strange could be perfectly normal to them, and they don’t mean any offence by being different.

The same goes for that person who smiles to himself on the bus, that screaming child at the table next to yours, that weirdo in the office. Could we learn to be more open-minded to somebody who is different? Because that nasty stare, that snarky comment, could go on to hurt somebody for a very long time.

But if we could change the way we respond, and really consider their stories – their true stories, not the cliches we force unthinkingly upon them – think of the impact that could make. The Chesters of the world would not have to suffer in silence.

And we would not even have to start by changing the world – just each of us, ourselves. 

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Singapore at a turning point: PM Lee to Singaporeans in Japan

TOKYO: Singapore is at a turning point as it develops beyond the pioneer generation of Singaporeans who built it, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Sep 27).

Speaking at reception attended by about 400 Singaporeans living in Japan, Mr Lee said that at 50 years, Singapore is neither old nor young. In fact, it is a “a very difficult time for a country, because you’re going beyond the people who remembered the start, and going into a new generation (of people) who are not quite sure where the future is going to be”.

About 400 Singaporeans living in Japan turned up at the reception, where PM Lee Hsien Loong was the guest-of-honour. (Photo: Linette Lim)

Mr Lee added that for the next fifty years and beyond, Singaporeans will have to create the future for themselves – choosing the direction, the approach, and the values which will make the nation succeed in the new world.

“And it’s a dangerous world. But this little red dot has made it for 50 years, and now the young little red dotters will have to make it for many more than another 50 years,” said the Prime Minister.

“Being connected to the world – Japan and China and America and Europe – being confident of ourselves, knowing what we can do and determine to do, and being able to work together – I think if we can keep these values, we can keep this success,” said Mr Lee. 


The Prime Minister, who is in Tokyo for a four-day official visit coinciding with the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, also named Japan as an “important friend” of the Republic.

Mr Lee spoke on how Japanese investments “made a big difference” to Singapore’s economy in the early years, and how there are 35,000 Japanese in Singapore, including one of the biggest overseas Japanese schools in the world.

“I think we must have one of the largest number of Japanese restaurants per person, in Singapore,” he quipped.

Touching on the bilateral relations between the two countries, Mr Lee said that this is a good relationship Singapore would like to cultivate and build further, because Japan has “a lot to contribute to the region”.

“We have a free trade agreement with them, it’s called JSEPA – Japan-Singapore Economic Partnership Agreement – we hope we can improve that, take it further steps forward… So the long and short of it is, we have a very good relationship at the country-to-country level, and we’re also very happy that individual Singaporeans and Japanese are able to work together with one another,” he added.

In turn, Mr Lee said he hopes that the Singaporeans living in Japan can bring home some of the good values and habits and customs of the Japanese.

“They are very disciplined, they queue up very neatly, they don’t litter the streets, they work very hard, and they work together cohesively as one,” he said, to laughter and applause among the crowd.

“And these are the values we need as Singaporeans, and if we can keep them, and maintain them, then I think for many more years to come, we can celebrate National Day, sing Majulah Singapura and have good reason to rejoice,” Mr Lee said.  

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PM Lee meets Japanese Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko

TOKYO: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Mrs Lee met Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko on Tuesday (Sep 27), as part of his four-day official visit to Japan.

Mr Lee last met the 82-year-old Emperor in 2013. He was also hosted to tea by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko while on a 2007 official visit.

On Tuesday, Mr Lee and Mrs Lee were hosted to a private lunch at the Imperial couple’s residence within the Imperial Palace grounds. The meeting lasted about two hours.

Mr Lee then had tea with senior Liberal Democratic Party of Japan representatives from the Japan-Singapore Parliamentary Friendship League (JSPFL).

Addressing JSPFL chairman Yasuhisa Shiozaki, who is the current Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare, as well as immediate past chairman Kenji Kosaka, Mr Lee thanked them for their contributions to Singapore-Japan relations. Mr Lee also presented a plaque to Mr Kosaka in recognition of his efforts.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong presented a plaque to former JSPFL chairman Mr Kenji Kosaka for his contributions to relations between Singapore and Japan. (Photo: MCI)

Mr Lee is due to attend a reception for close to 500 Singaporeans living in Japan on Tuesday evening.

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Russia accuses Kiev over MH17 ahead of Dutch probe release

MOSCOW: Russia on Monday (Sep 26) sought to deflect blame over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, accusing Kiev just days before the results of a Dutch criminal probe into the mass-killing are released.

Ukraine and the West insist pro-Russian rebels blew the Boeing 777 jet out of the sky over war-torn east Ukraine on Jul 17, 2014, with a missile system likely supplied by Moscow.

An international inquiry concluded last October that a Russian-made BUK missile fired from a zone held by pro-Russian separatists brought down the aircraft, but stopped short of saying who was responsible for killing all 298 passengers and crew on board.

Dutch prosecutors believe the MH17 was shot down by a BUK surface-to-air missile. (AFP Photo)

Russia and the rebels have consistently denied any role in downing the plane, releasing a series of sometimes contradictory claims that critics say are intended to confuse the issue.

At a specially arranged briefing on Monday, Russia’s defence ministry released what it claimed were radar images showing that no missile fired from rebel-held territory in the east could have hit the plane.

“The fact that Ukraine has not yet released information from the radar station suggests that the location from which the missile was launched – if it was a BUK – was in territory controlled by the Ukrainian armed forces,” Russian army commander Andrei Koban said.

“If the Malaysian Boeing was hit by a missile launched from any area located east of the crash site, it would have been detected by Russia’s primary radar,” Koban said, without explaining why Russian radar did not cover the areas west of the passenger jet’s flight path.

The radar footage released by Russia on Monday appeared to directly contradict earlier claims by Moscow, made in the immediate aftermath of the incident, that a Ukrainian jet was spotted close to the doomed airliner.

Initial results from a Dutch-led criminal probe into the downing of flight MH17 are due to be revealed on Wednesday.

Investigators from the Netherlands – where the majority of the passengers came from – have said the results should shed more light on the type of missile used and exactly where it was fired from.

The downing of flight MH17 ratcheted up international tensions over the conflict in Ukraine that started in April 2014 after pro-Russian gunmen took over towns in the country’s industrial east, and has since claimed some 9,600 lives.

The tragedy saw the European Union slap tougher sanctions on Russia – blamed by the West for being behind the rebellion – and the punitive measures remain in place as the fighting drags on.

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A league of their own: Rohingya footballers tackle prejudice in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Racing from one end of the football pitch to another, the players in bright yellow and pink jerseys pass the ball between them, weaving around their opponents, tackling each other and occasionally, committing a foul.

As a small crowd cheers them on, it looks like any other amateur match taking place on a Sunday afternoon in countless cities around the world. But on this pitch in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, the teams face a challenge like no other.

The players are young refugees from the Rohingya Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, who are trying to tackle the prejudices they face in society in one of the few arenas they truly feel equal.

For Mohammed Farouque, whose perilous journey to Malaysia included a journey on a crowded boat and a stay in people-smuggling camp in the jungle, the sense of liberation is something new.

“Since my birth, I haven’t known freedom,” said Farouque, one of the refugees who runs the Rohingya Football Club in Kuala Lumpur.

A footballer with the Rohingya Football Club. (Photo: Facebook) 

“We can openly play football here. In Myanmar we are not even allowed to go out of our houses. I had to leave my country to save my life.”

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Muslim-majority Malaysia to escape harsh discrimination in their homeland, where they are not recognised as citizens.

After the perilous and sometimes deadly voyage to Malaysia, their problems are far from over.

The 150,700 refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia live in the shadows of the society, barred from working officially or receiving formal education. Often seen as illegal immigrants, they generally have limited contact with Malaysians.

With football, the Rohingya have more than one goal in mind.

They see it as a way of keeping young members of the community out of trouble, as well as a chance to break down barriers with citizens of their adopted homeland.

“In Malaysia, we are not allowed to work and we have no support. We don’t want our young people to get involved in crime, so we encourage them to get together to play football,” said Farouque.

“We want to show the world the Rohingya can achieve something great,” added the 23-year-old as he took a break during a match with another Rohingya team from Malaysia’s central state of Malacca.


The Rohingya Football Club was set up in 2015 and its players are aged between 18 and 30.

The club so far has taken on a few Malaysian sides in friendly matches, including teams comprised of staff from the state energy firm and a private broadcaster.

The Rohingya Football Club (in yellow) in action during a friendly match. (Photo: Facebook) 

Their initiative has also inspired the Rohingya community in other cities to set up teams.

At the friendly match with the visiting team from Malacca, the two sides fought it out at a community field in Ampang, a neighbourhood a short drive away from the city centre, where the iconic Twin Towers dominate the skyline.

About 100 other refugees and locals gathered on the sidelines, watching the game and cheering on the teams.

Malaysian Pannir Selvam, who was refereeing the game, said he found out about the refugee football team after he saw the young men training on the pitch.

As well as volunteering as a referee, he sometimes joins in with matches, and says the refugees have shown a “spirit to strive for excellence”.

“They were having a lot of fun, I enjoyed playing with the them. I am happy and proud of them,” the 60-year-old said.

“We need to do more. We are Malaysians, we live with them under the same roof, in the same country, we need to get to know them better,” he said.

Despite their enthusiasm, the Rohingya footballers only train once in while due to a lack of money.

The club needs about US$350 every month to cover costs including the hiring of a venue for training – but it is so far relying on the limited resources the refugees can pull together themselves.


For many refugees, the sport provides a temporary escape from their hardship and a chance to call time on the discrimination they face in their day to day life.

“Playing football is very relaxing,” said Saiful Shahidul, 18, from the visiting Malacca team, who works on a construction site to support himself and the family.

“I would like to be a professional football player one day,” he added, shyly, saying his favourite player is football star Cristiano Ronaldo.

As for Farouque, his ambitions have entered a whole new league after seeing the first ever Refugee Team at the Rio Olympics this year.

“Inshallah (God willing) we will be playing at the Olympics one day like the Refugee Team,” he said.

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World's largest radio telescope starts operating in China

BEIJING: The world’s largest radio telescope began operating in southwestern China Sunday (Sep 25), a project which Beijing says will help humanity search for alien life.

The five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), nestled between hills in the mountainous region of Guizhou, began working around noon, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Built at a cost of 1.2 billion yuan (US$180 million), the telescope dwarfs the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico as the world’s largest radio telescope, with a reflector as large as 30 football fields, it said.

FAST will explore space and search for signs of intelligent life, it added.

Map of China showing Guizhou, where the world’s largest radio telescope is located. (AFP/Kun TIAN)

China sees its ambitious military-run, multi-billion-dollar space programme as symbolising the country’s progress. It plans a permanent orbiting space station by 2020 and eventually a manned mission to the moon.

Earlier Xinhua cited Wu Xiangping, director-general of the Chinese Astronomical Society, as saying that the telescope’s high degree of sensitivity “will help us to search for intelligent life outside of the galaxy”.

Construction of FAST began in 2011, and local officials vowed in February to relocate nearly 10,000 people living within five kilometres to create a better environment for monitoring.

In the past China has relocated hundreds of thousands of people to make way for large infrastructure projects such as dams and canals.

The area surrounding the telescope is remote and relatively poor. Xinhua earlier said it was chosen because there are no major towns nearby.

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Shy pangolins need world spotlight to survive

JOHANNESBURG: Reclusive, gentle and quick to roll up into a ball, pangolins keep a low profile.

But they are also the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal, and experts at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference this week are ringing alarm bells over their survival.

Demand for pangolin meat and body parts has fuelled a bloodbath, and driven the scale-covered, ant-eating mammal towards extinction.

More than a million pangolins are believed to have been poached from the wild in the past decade.

Most are used to supply demand in China and Vietnam, where they are highly regarded as a delicacy and an ingredient in traditional medicine.

At the CITES meeting in Johannesburg, conservationists will discuss moving pangolins into the highest protection category, which bans all international trade.

“The pangolin today is regarded as the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world,” CITES chief John Scanlon told AFP.

“There has been a massive surge in the illegal take of the pangolin for its meat and for its scales.”

Currently CITES allows for trade in pangolins but under strict conditions.

“Existing laws are clearly failing to protect pangolins from the poachers. A complete international trade ban is needed now,” said Heather Sohl, WWF-UK’s wildlife advisor.

Indonesian police display some of 657 dead and frozen pangolins seized in Surabaya, East Java. (AFP/Juni Kriswanto)

There are four species of pangolin in Africa and four in Asia.

Watchdogs say those in Asia are being eaten to extinction, while populations in Africa are declining fast.

Research published in the early 2000s estimated populations in China to have declined by up to 94 percent, said Dan Challender, pangolin expert at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.


Pangolins are covered in overlapping scales, and have pink, sticky tongues almost as long as their bodies.

When physically threatened, they curl into ball, making it easy for them to be picked up by hunters and put into a sack.

About the size of a small dog, they are solitary, mostly nocturnal and cannot be farmed.

“Pangolins are notoriously difficult to keep in captivity – they only feed on wild ants and termites, and they are extremely prone to stress and dehydration, so they die,” Ray Jansen, of the African Pangolin Working Group, told AFP.

A rescued pangolin rests in a cage as another hangs outside at the customs department in Bangkok. (AFP/Christophe Archambault)

In Chinese traditional medicine, pangolin scales are ground into a powder believed to cure conditions from headaches and menstrual cramps to nose bleeding and lack of virility.

The scales are sometimes even used as guitar plectrums.

In traditional African culture, some people believe in keeping a scale in their pockets to ward off evil.

Zimbabweans used to present the mammals to President Robert Mugabe during his early years in office, but the practice has been discontinued.

“In Shona and Zulu culture, a pangolin is regarded as the greatest gift you can bestow on a chief, statesman or an elder,” said Jansen.

Pangolin fat, blood and bones are also highly valued in African traditional medicine.

According to Jansen, in South Africa a pangolin can sell for anything between 10,000 rand (US$730) to 80,000 rand (US$5,800) depending on the client.

India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Nigeria, Senegal and the United States are co-sponsoring the proposal to impose a total ban on pangolin trade.

The CITES treaty, signed by 182 countries and the European Union, protects about 5,600 animal and 30,000 plant species from over-exploitation through commercial trade.

The 12-day conference started Saturday and will sift through 62 proposals to tighten or loosen trade restrictions on some 500 species.

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