Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

Destination Doha

In March, representatives from 184 countries, scientists and advocates will gather in Doha, Qatar for the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

CITES is an international treaty intended to regulate trade in wildlife and wildlife products, including plants and plant products. Such regulation is ostensibly achieved by listing species subject to trade into three appendices. Appendix I contains the most restrictive trade prohibitions and is used for the most imperiled species. Appendix II is intended to permit regulated and sustainable trade by requiring exporting countries to make certain determinations before allowing trade to proceed. Appendix III is used by individual CITES countries seeking assistance in regulating the trade in endemic species. At present, over 30,000 species have CITES "protection."

Regulation of wildlife trade is of critical importance to prevent the demand for wildlife and wildlife products from decimating wildlife populations. Every year millions of wild species (both live and dead) and their products (wood, jewelry, clothing, souvenirs) are traded internationally. The illicit wildlife trade is an enormous problem that impacts myriad species. With high demand, enormous profits, inadequate enforcement and generally minor penalties, illegal wildlife trade continues unabated.

AWI has participated in CITES since the treaty was first negotiated by a handful of countries in the early 1970s. While it continues to support the treaty, there are serious concerns about its implementation.

For Appendix II species, for example, exporting countries are required to issue a non-detriment finding (NDF) to ensure that trade will not harm the species in the wild. While CITES has adopted broad standards for NDFs and engages in capacity-building to help countries meet their NDF responsibilities, compliance remains questionable at best. Efforts to improve NDF standards have been opposed as CITES-member countries assert that individual governments should determine their own NDF protocol and procedures. CITES currently does not require NDFs to be in writing, publicly available or provided to importing countries to substantiate the legality of trade.

Such deficiencies are exemplified in the trade of wild-caught bottlenose dolphins from the Solomon Islands. Despite repeated warnings from scientists of a lack of population data and consequently the inability to prepare a credible NDF, the Solomon Islands has exported four shipments of dolphins since joining CITES in 2007. Efforts to convince importing countries to reject the shipments have largely fallen on deaf ears and the CITES Secretariat has also refused to act to prevent this trade.

In 2009, the CITES Animals Committee voted to subject the Solomon Islands dolphin trade to Significant Trade Review - a process to investigate wildlife trade that may be inconsistent with the treaty. Unfortunately, this process can take several years to reach its conclusion during which the trade in question can proceed.

Transparency is also a problem within CITES. While its meetings permit active participation by non-governmental organizations, many CITES documents, such as NDFs and Secretariat correspondence to member countries, are not easily accessible.

While these deficiencies are unlikely to be resolved in Doha, debates on dozens of proposals affecting a variety of animal and plant species along with interpretation of the treaty itself are imminent. AWI's Susan Millward and D.J. Schubert will be there to advocate strengthening the treaty and to promote proper protections for species imperiled by trade.

Bobcat Listing Under Threat Again

The U.S. is proposing removal of the bobcat (Lynx rufus) from Appendix II of CITES - a listing it has held since 1977. The species remains listed due to similarity of appearance with other, more imperiled species including the Iberian and Eurasian lynx. Previous delisting attempts have failed primarily due to these similarity concerns which remain valid today. The Iberian lynx is the most endangered felid in the world with only 84-143 adults remaining in Spain and Portugal. The Eurasian lynx has a broader range but is reportedly declining in one-third of its 37 range states.

The U.S. claims that 89 percent of the trade involves bobcat skins which can be reliably distinguished from other lynx species. Considering the large variations in pelt color/spotting patterns within and among lynx species, this claim is unproven. Other features such as the size of ear tufts, number of dorsal spots and length of legs are also all relative and cannot reliably be used to differentiate species pelts or parts. Indeed, according to officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory, skin pieces from Iberian and Eurasian lynx species are so similar to bobcat skin that they cannot be distinguished even with forensic laboratory analysis.

The remaining 11 percent or 42,611 specimens traded from 2002-2006 were not full skins and therefore not readily identifiable to species. If only a fraction of these specimens were from Eurasian or Iberian lynx, the implications could be severe and not surprisingly, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) cites the illegal skin trade as being the primary threat to these species. According to a 2008 survey of European range states, there is illegal trade in lynx species - 104 specimens in the last few years alone. European authorities are concerned that delisting the bobcat would lead to more skins on the market, creating poaching incentive and further illegal trade.

The U.S. proposal provides little evidence to substantiate claims that bobcats are well managed. Since counting bobcats is difficult due to their secretive behavior, few U.S. states have accurate population estimates. Consequently, claims that bobcat populations are stable or increasing in all states, except Florida, are speculative at best. Conversely, bobcat kill data obtained by AWI reveals that kill rates have increased by 200 to nearly 2600 percent in a number of states over the past decade. Yet these states, none of which have accurate population estimates, continue to misleadingly claim that bobcat populations are stable or increasing. AWI urges parties to oppose the proposal to remove the bobcat from Appendix II.

Tigers on the Brink

Sweden (on behalf of the European Union) has proposed a revision of a resolution pertaining to the conservation of tigers (Panthera tigris spp) and other Asian big cat species. Despite decades of effort to conserve the world’s remaining tiger populations, the species is nearing extinction, down from approximately 100,000 in 1900 to just 3,402 today. Threats include habitat loss, reduction in prey, conflicts with humans and poaching for skins, meat, bones and other parts for medicinal products.

Captive breeding is also a threat to wild tiger survival. In 2007, China had 5,000 captive tigers, a number that is likely higher today. While often raised in squalid conditions and displayed to tourists, owners are hoping to cash in if the Chinese government repeals its 1993 ban on the domestic trade in tiger products. Despite that ban and the prohibition on international trade, there is increasing evidence that tiger products from captive operations are entering the illegal commercial trade. Should the ban be lifted, extinction of wild tigers would follow due to significant demand for tiger products, inability to distinguish between captive and wild tiger parts, and inadequate law enforcement.

CITES parties have repeatedly taken action at both international and national levels but such actions appear to have had little impact upon the threats facing these species, necessitating the Swedish proposal. While CITES cannot address every threat to wild tigers and their habitats, it can and must stop illegal trade in tigers and their parts if the species is to survive in the wild. Range countries must conserve tigers and their habitats, adhere to CITES decisions and significantly improve law enforcement operations. AWI urges parties to support the revised resolution on tigers and Asian big cats.

Polar Bear Debate to Sizzle in Doha

As the desert begins to warm for summer outside, CITES participants will be engaging in what is sure to be a contentious debate over a U.S. proposal to move the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I. The polar bear is projected to decline in number, in some areas precipitously, as a consequence of continuing loss and deterioration of sea ice due to global warming.

As sea ice declines, this ice-dependent ursid will not be able to adapt to a terrestrial-based life as polar bears rarely capture prey on land, resulting in increased mortality and reduced reproduction. Increasing conflicts with humans on land will also end in polar bears being killed as "nuisance" animals. Some experts report that the polar bear will not survive the complete loss of sea ice which climate models predict may occur in 30 years.

While global warming is the principal threat to the polar bear, international trade in the species and its parts contributes to the myriad threats afflicting this species. From 1992-2006, an estimated 31,294 polar bear specimens (bodies, trophies, live animals, parts, pieces, and derivatives) were exported from range states. Approximately two-thirds of those specimens are believed to be from wild bears with 3,237 items commercially exported. The majority of specimens were exported from Canada while 73 countries, led by Denmark, the United States and Japan reported imports.

Considering the burgeoning threat to polar bears from global warming, human-bear conflicts, the inability of polar bears to adapt to a more terrestrial existence, declining population sizes and the species’ low reproductive potential, polar bears clearly qualify to be uplisted from Appendix II to Appendix I due to projected future population declines. An uplisting will not affect existing aboriginal hunts or the domestic trade in bears, their skins or other parts. AWI urges parties to support the proposal for an Appendix I listing of the polar bear.

Elephants and the Ivory Trade: Center Stage Again

After weeks of lengthy debate among African elephant range states during CITES’ Conference of the Parties 14 (CoP14) in 2007, many thought a compromise had been reached: CITES would avoid another elephant ivory trade proposal for nine years in exchange for permitting a one-time sale of stockpiled ivory from Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia to China and Japan. The intent was to use the nine years to fully assess how a one-time sale of ivory affected elephant poaching.

Unfortunately, this intent was not clear in the agreed-upon language and Tanzania and Zambia have introduced proposals to downlist their elephant populations from Appendix I to II, and to allow for trade in elephants and their parts including one-time sales of government-owned ivory stocks. In contrast, Kenya and its allies have submitted a proposal to tighten the 2007 agreement to prohibit elephant downlisting and one-time ivory sale proposals for a 20-year period.

Between 1979 and 1989, more than 600,000 African elephants (Loxodonta africana) were killed for their ivory, cutting the continent’s population by half to 600,000. Tragically, poaching continues with an estimated 38,000 elephants killed annually to supply the demand for ivory, primarily from the Far East. The 23.2 tonnes of poached ivory that has been seized since June 2007 from several countries highlights the severity of the problem - an under-representation since the majority of illegally traded ivory goes undetected.

Tanzania and Zambia contend that their elephant populations no longer qualify for Appendix I listings. In 2006, the elephant population in Tanzania contained 137,000 elephants while Zambia’s population, in 2008, numbered approximately 26,400.

With the severity of elephant poaching today at levels commensurate with 1980s levels when CITES prohibited all ivory trade, approving additional one-time ivory sales is at best premature and at worst will facilitate expanded elephant poaching throughout Africa. Many experts opposed the 2007 one-time ivory sale based on concerns it would stimulate an increase in illegal trade and poaching. They are now being vindicated. According to analysis of data of elephant product seizures from 1982 through 2009 compiled in the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), elephant poaching has increased since CoP14 and continues to increase with an "exceptionally sharp increase" of seizure cases since August 2009. Once all 2009 seizures are verified, TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network that analyzes the ETIS data, predicts that 2009 will have been "a pivotal year in terms of escalating illicit trade in ivory." This evidence may demonstrate that the one-time sale of ivory approved in 2007 and carried out in 2008 has led to an escalation in elephant poaching.

The ETIS results provide sufficient justification for more forceful implementation of the "action plan for the control of trade in African elephant ivory" including the urgent need to close unregulated and illicit domestic ivory markets in Africa and to enhance and improve national wildlife law enforcement campaigns.

Considering the ongoing crisis with illicit domestic ivory markets, inadequate law enforcement in many range states, governmental corruption and evidence that one-time ivory sales increase elephant poaching, Kenya’s proposal is warranted and reflects a precautionary approach to conservation integral to the implementation of CITES. AWI urges parties to oppose Prop 4 (Rev 1) and Prop 5 and support Prop 6.

Biting into Shark Protection

The U.S. and Palau have proposed an Appendix II listing for the scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini) and the following lookalike species: great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran), smooth hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena), sandbar (Carcharhinus plumbeus) and dusky (Carcharhinus obscurus) sharks. The fins of all five species are very similar and indistinguishable once removed from the body. Shark fins are in high demand, especially in Asia, where they are used to make the delicacy "shark fin soup." Due to the lucrative shark fin trade prompting the desire to land and collect as many fins as possible, fishermen often cut off the fins and throw the rest of the living animal back into the sea to endure a slow and painful death. A CITES Appendix II listing for these species would place much needed controls on their trade.

Scalloped hammerheads are listed as globally endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list. The wide-ranging species is a coastal and semi-oceanic shark that inhabits the warm temperate and tropical seas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. The species tends to aggregate in large schools making it a particularly vulnerable target, one which has experienced steep declines as a result of the high demand for its fins. Recent genetic studies have indicated the existence of multiple segregated subpopulations, and declines of up to 98 percent have been reported in some populations.

Other sharks proposed for Appendix II listings are also targeted for their fins. Oceanic whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) are prized for their large fins rather than their less desirable meat. Although widely distributed, the species is caught in large numbers as bycatch and available data shows that populations are severely depleted with declines of 99 percent in some areas. Catches are unmanaged throughout its ranges. The species is classified as vulnerable globally by the IUCN and critically endangered in the Northwest and Western Central Atlantic.

The spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) is a small, highly migratory shark found in temperate and boreal waters worldwide. The species’ habits and biological traits, including its tendency to travel in large aggregations segregated by sex and size, late maturation, longevity and low reproductive capacity make it the most vulnerable shark species to exploitation. The meat of the species is regularly consumed, particularly in Europe as fish and chips. Although naturally abundant, this demand has driven fisheries to target aggregations of mature females because they are larger than the males, causing drastic changes in demographic structure and a 75 percent decline in biomass of mature females in the Northwest Atlantic. Despite the drastic declines and continued demand for the meat of this species, few conservation measures exist to help control fishing pressure or rebuild the species.

The porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus) is a large, wide-ranging coastal and oceanic species that inhabits temperate and cold-temperate waters worldwide. The species is targeted for its high value meat and has a low reproductive capacity, making it vulnerable to over-exploitation. Porbeagle shark populations have experienced drastic declines as a result of high catches by both target and bycatch fisheries. Unregulated longline fisheries are the biggest threat to the species and have caused the over-exploitation of the North Atlantic populations.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has expressed its support for the proposals to list the scalloped hammerhead, the porbeagle and the oceanic whitetip shark. The FAO opposed previous listing proposals for sharks at the last CITES Conference of the Parties so its support of these proposals signifies recognition that stricter trade controls are desperately needed.AWI urges parties to support and vote in favor of all
shark proposals.

Bluefin Tuna Facing Crisis

Monaco has proposed an Appendix I listing for northern or Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), which would afford this fish the highest protections under CITES. The species, divided into the Eastern and Western populations, is found in the North Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The proposal is long overdue, with both stocks facing certain extinction if current levels of harvesting continue. The Western population is near collapse with more than a 90 percent probability it is at less than 15 percent of its equivalent historic level. The Eastern population is in worse condition having suffered more than an 82 percent decline between 1970 and 2007. This fish is the most valuable of the tuna species in the international marketplace with single specimens selling for many thousands of dollars. A cessation in the international trade of the species is not only justified under CITES listing requirements but is an immediate necessity to ensure the survival of the species.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the principal body responsible for regulating catches of tuna, has failed to address the impending crisis. ICCAT has consistently set total allowable catch limits far in excess of scientific recommendations and has failed to act when actual catches were several times higher. With quotas for this slow growing and late to mature species set above scientifically prescribed sustainable levels, rampant under-reporting of catches, increasing consumer demand and inadequate enforcement of infractions, the situation is at a crisis.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) agrees. Its Ad Hoc Expert Advisory Panel preliminarily concluded that "the available evidence supported the proposal to include Atlantic bluefin tuna in CITES Appendix I" and that "an Appendix I listing would be likely to reduce the bluefin catches from both component populations." AWI urges parties to vote for an Appendix I listing. The species cannot wait any longer.

Corals, a Beetle and Humphead Wrasse in Need

Sweden has proposed an Appendix II listing (on behalf of the European Union) and the U.S. for over 30 species of Pink and Red corals (Corallium spp. and Paracorallium spp.). Found in tropical, subtropical and temperate oceans worldwide, these corals are primarily threatened by international trade as whole colonies, branches, polished stones, jewelry, powder, pills and liquid. The U.S. is the largest consumer of precious corals, importing them mostly from China, Taiwan and Italy. Corals mature late, grow slowly, have very long life spans and low fecundity. These characteristics make them extremely vulnerable to overexploitation, with the species in the Mediterranean Sea and Pacific Ocean experiencing particularly rapid declines. Because some of the species’ populations have remained at historically low levels for almost 20 years, controls on trade are desperately needed.

Bolivia has proposed inclusion of the Satanas beetle (Dynastes satanas) under Appendix II. This species of rhinoceros beetle has very limited distribution and is endemic to the rainforests of Bolivia. It has reduced and fragmented habitat and is further threatened by illegal international trade in both live and dead specimens for collectors.

Indonesia has submitted a resolution to limit international trade and improve monitoring of trade in humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulates), which is listed on Appendix II. The species is a large, slow growing and long-lived fish which inhabits coral reefs throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific region. This wrasse is listed as endangered by IUCN and populations are decreasing due to the loss of coral reef habitat, illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing and lack of international management. Illegal exports from Malaysia and Indonesia to Hong Kong have been reported and appear to be a considerable part of the trade. Similarly, the species has been found in China, despite the lack of records reported to CITES of any imports. AWI urges parties to support the corals and beetle proposals and the humphead wrasse resolution.

Amphibians and Reptiles Under Debate

Five species of tree frogs (Agalychnis spp.) have been proposed for an Appendix II listing by Honduras and Mexico. They are the blue-sided tree frog (A. annae), red-eyed tree frog (A. callidryas), Morelet’s tree frog (A. moreletii), misfit leaf frog (A. saltator) and gliding tree frog (A. spurrelli). All of the species inhabit the canopy of the subtropical and tropical forests in Central and South America. They face multiple threats including habitat destruction from logging, pollution, global warming, fragmented distributions and the devastating fungal disease chytridiomycosis. Tree frogs are also harvested and exploited for the international pet trade with demand from the U.S., Europe and Japan. Although commercial exports of tree frogs are prohibited in most range states, importing countries may not be aware of the regulations making a CITES listing critical.

The inclusion of Kaiser's spotted newt (Neurergus kaiseri) in Appendix I has been proposed by Iran, where its distribution is limited to four streams. Listed as critically endangered by IUCN, the species, numbering fewer than 1,000, is threatened by habitat loss and drought as well as illegal collection of adults during the breeding season for the international pet trade.

Four species of iguana have been proposed for Appendix II listing by Guatemala and Honduras because of threats from illegal domestic trade and trade of live specimens to the U.S. and Europe. The Guatemalan spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura palearis) is listed as critically endangered by IUCN with a severely fragmented estimated population of fewer than 2,500. All three species of the proposed Honduran iguanas are listed as critically endangered by IUCN: the Baker’s spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura bakeri), the Roatan spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura oedirhina) and the Honduran paleate spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura melanosterna).

Israel has proposed the transfer of the Ornate dabb lizard (Uromastyx ornate) from Appendix II to Appendix I. The species is in high demand in the pet trade in North America, Europe and Japan and is highly threatened by illegal collection, population fragmentation, and habitat degradation and loss. It is particularly vulnerable to overexploitation due to late maturity and low fecundity.

A downlisting from Appendix I to Appendix II is proposed by Mexico for the Morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreletti) and by Egypt for the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). Morelet’s crocodile is native to Belize, Guatemala and Mexico and is threatened by illegal harvest and trade and habitat loss and degradation. The proposal by Mexico does not provide evidence that sufficient precautionary measures are in place to control the illegal trade, therefore a downlisting could stimulate further illegal harvest and trade. Similarly, the Nile crocodile is also threatened by illegal trade of live specimens, leather products and whole skins, along with illegal hunting. The species is greatly depleted in Central and Western Africa. It is clearly premature for either of these species to be downlisted as neither country has demonstrated that adequate measures have been taken to control illegal trade in the species.

AWI urges parties to support the proposals for tree frogs, iguanas and the newt and oppose the crocodile proposals.

See "At-a-glance CITES guide to Select CoP 15 Proposals" in the Winter 2010 AWI Quarterly PDF.