Conservation and Commerce: Important Decisions on Trade in Endangered Species Await International Community at 16th CITES Conference

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

Three years ago, 839 delegates from 158 countries and 350 observers from non-parties and NGOs gathered in Doha, Qatar, for the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This March, the parties will descend on Bangkok, Thailand, for the 16th CoP to decide the fate of many species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and plants subject to international trade as living organisms, their parts, or in products.

AWI will be in Bangkok to advocate for species in need of protection. AWI has worked within CITES since the treaty was first negotiated in the early 1970s, attending every CoP and most meetings of its management and scientific committees (Standing Committee and Animals Committee, respectively) that meet each year between CoPs.

CoP16 will take place at the same conference center that hosted the 13th CoP in 2004. Perhaps this is a good omen, as CoP13 scored several landmark victories for conservation—in contrast to the disappointments of the intervening two meetings, at which several important proposals to better protect marine species were defeated by fierce opposition from Japan and China and a growing lobby in favor of easing restrictions on trade in wildlife. In contrast, at CoP13, animal protection and conservation NGOs, including AWI, helped parties protect the Irrawaddy dolphin from the Asian aquarium trade (despite Japan’s best efforts to defeat the proposal), helped prevent Japan from reopening international trade in northern hemisphere minke whale products, and secured the listing on Appendix II of the great white shark, requiring parties to determine that any commercial trade would be sustainable before allowing exports to proceed.

Blanding's Turtle - Include the spotted turtle, Blanding’s turtle, and diamondback terrapin in Appendix II - Support. Photo by USFWS/Midwest RegionCITES regulates trade in wildlife by listing species subject to international trade on one of the Convention’s three appendices, depending on their biological and trade status: Appendix I includes the most threatened species and imposes the most restrictive trade restrictions (banning international trade for primarily commercial purposes but permitting, for example, transfers between museums or for captive breeding programs). Appendix II regulates commercial trade in species affected, but not yet threatened, by international trade by requiring exporting countries to make determinations of legal origin, sustainability of the trade, and welfare in transit before issuing export permits. Appendix III is used by individual CITES parties seeking assistance in regulating trade in endemic species. Since it entered into force in 1975, CITES has listed over 30,000 species in its appendices, the vast majority on Appendix II, and its membership has expanded to 177 parties, with the newest member, the Republic of Maldives, joining in December 2012.

CITES is often considered one of the more effective multinational environmental treaties primarily because, unlike many others, CITES has teeth in the form of recommended trade sanctions against parties that do not comply with the treaty’s provisions. Unfortunately, CITES has significant weaknesses, including—a lack of transparency, decision-making and trade evaluation processes that are glacially slow despite the urgent need for action to address substantial levels of illegal and legal trade, increasingly politicized debate that ignores (contra to the treaty’s mandates) the best available scientific evidence, a failure to adhere to the “precautionary principle” (which requires that conservation be prioritized in the face of uncertain outcomes), and significant deficiencies in making credible findings as to the sustainability of trade in Appendix I and II species (also referred to as “non-detriment findings”).

Despite these deficiencies, CITES is more progressive than other treaties in that it recognizes the depth and breadth of expertise in the NGO community and welcomes our participation in discussions and input into decision making. For the last twenty years, the majority of conservation and animal welfare groups working on wildlife trade issues have worked together in an advocacy coalition co-founded by AWI called the Species Survival Network (SSN) that now boasts almost 100 members from all corners of the globe.

SSN members cohere around a common commitment to the promotion, enhancement, and strict enforcement of CITES and a shared belief that for international trade in wildlife to be permitted, credible evidence should be presented that such trade will not detrimentally affect survival of the species, subspecies or populations and their role in the ecosystems in which they occur, and that when trade involves live animals, the risk of injury, damage to health, and cruel treatment is minimized. The main function of SSN at a CoP is to coordinate the sharing of its legal and scientific analyses with the parties to help them (and the general public) better understand the proposals and resolutions before them and, most importantly, to recognize the impact that their decisions may have on the survival of species.

In the months leading up to this and every CoP, AWI and other SSN members work together to compile a detailed digest of comments on all issues on the agenda for publication in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. We also work between meetings to advise friendly parties on proactive measures we believe they should take. Several parties, including the United States and members of the European Union, actively solicit such input. The following are just some of the positions that AWI and our SSN colleagues will be advocating for in Bangkok.

West African Manatee - Transfer the West African manatee from Appendix II to Apendix I - Support. Photo by Lucy Keith Diagne. Manatee

Benin, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, on behalf of other range states, seek the transfer (“uplisting”) of the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) from Appendix II to Appendix I. The species is found in coastal and estuary habitat, including most river systems from Mauritania to Angola. Although manatees are protected from hunting across their range, poaching of manatees for meat and traditional medicines, and capture of live animals for captive display is increasing. The threat from hunting is compounded by other challenges to the manatee’s survival, including habitat loss exacerbated by development on wetlands and construction of dams, and incidental capture in fishing nets. Although the status of the species across much of its range is poorly understood, manatees are believed to number in the low thousands, with a growing body of evidence indicating a population decline in the majority of range states.

Traditionally, West African manatees were hunted opportunistically for meat and medicinal use of their body parts. Today they are targeted by poachers using harpoons, hooks, baited traps, and poison. As prices for manatee products rise, the incentive to kill these peaceful aquatic mammals escalates. A whole manatee can sell for up to $4,500 in Chad and manatee oil fetches $304 per liter. In Sierra Leone, more than 350 manatees were killed by commercial poachers between 2007 and 2010, and authorities refer to the emergence of an organized “manatee mafia.”

While greater effort and resources are clearly needed in the range states to enforce laws against manatee hunting and cross-border trade, a CITES Appendix I listing would play an important role in helping wildlife enforcement officials. AWI has stepped up to champion the manatee proposal on behalf of SSN and is working closely with contacts in the region to prepare documents for the meeting and rally support for the proposal.


A clear African priority is the elephant (Loxodonta africana), which always stands on center stage at CoPs. Between 1979 and 1989, more than 600,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory, halving the continent’s population. CITES stemmed the slaughter by listing the species on Appendix I in 1989, but southern African range states repeatedly sought to overturn the ban and allow exports to continue, primarily to Japan, the main market. In 2007, after a long series of CoPs at which multiple proposals to have various nations’ elephant populations downlisted to Appendix II dominated the agenda—including successful efforts by Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa—the parties reached a compromise, agreeing to a nine-year ivory moratorium from further proposals for trade in order to provide a “resting period” from debate on this issue and an opportunity to tighten enforcement relating to poaching, illegal international trade, and domestic ivory markets. In return, the four countries with populations already on Appendix II were permitted a one-off sale of government-stockpiled ivory (the second such one-off sale permitted since 1997).

Sadly, however, the faction intent on easing trade restrictions never gave the ivory moratorium a chance, interpreting it to apply only to the four countries with populations on Appendix II, and not the other 33 range states. At the very next CoP in 2010, Tanzania and Zambia sought a downlisting of their national populations and a one-off sale of stockpiled ivory. Their proposals were rejected. The range states of Burkina Faso and Kenya, which are opposed to further trade, are seeking an amendment to a footnote in the appendices to clarify that the nine-year moratorium applies to all elephant populations in order to satisfy the original intent of the 2007 compromise and enable the African Elephant Action Plan—adopted by all 37 African elephant range states—to be properly implemented and funded.

The backdrop to this war of words at the CoP is a tragedy on the ground in Africa. Poaching is out of control across most of Africa and has worsened considerably in recent years. AWI, other NGOs, and many scientists believe this is in direct response to the most recent one-off ivory sales to Japan and China. As the CITES Standing Committee noted in mid-2012, “The rise in levels of illegal killing and the dynamics surrounding it are worrying, not only for small and fragmented elephant populations that could face extirpation, but also for previously secure large populations.” AWI strongly supports the Burkina Faso and Kenya proposal and hopes a properly implemented moratorium will bring desperately needed respite.


Another African species in crisis is the southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum), of which the South African and Swaziland populations were downlisted to Appendix II in 1994 and 2004, respectively, to permit trade in live animals and hunting trophies. For almost a decade, the hunting trophy annotation has provided a loophole through which hundreds of horns from southern white rhinos legally hunted in South Africa have been illegally exported to Vietnam for commercial purposes (primarily to be used in traditional Asian medicine). Although South Africa has recently banned sport hunting by Vietnamese nationals, demand from Vietnam is so intense and the value of rhino horn so high that horns attained from sport hunted trophies continue to illegally enter Vietnam and it is even feared that bona fide hunters may come to regard their trophies as tradable commodities.

Furthermore, demand is driving incredible levels of poaching; during 2012, 668 rhinos were reported killed illegally for their horns in South Africa. This is the continuation of a bloody trend that claimed 986 rhino lives from 2008 through 2011, compared to 13 rhinos reported killed illegally in 2007. Not all animals are killed; a few have survived the mutilations suffered at the hands of poachers to access their horns. (Despite this demand, the purported medicinal benefits of rhino horn are without scientific basis; rhino horn is made of keratin, the same material in all mammal hair and fingernails.)

To close the sport-hunting loophole, Kenya is proposing an amendment to the Appendix II listing to establish a zero quota on exports of hunting trophies from South Africa and Swaziland from 2013 until at least CoP18. The aim is to allow existing exporting and importing parties, as well as potential importing parties, to ensure that their legal, enforcement, and other frameworks are capable of preventing illegal activity when exports of southern white rhino trophies resume.

Polar Bear

Despite the rejection of an uplisting proposal at the last CoP in 2010, the United States (this time supported by Russia), is again proposing the transfer of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) to Appendix I. As is widely known, this sea ice-dependent top predator is predicted to decline precipitously as a consequence of climate change. CITES cannot prevent that, but it can intervene to mitigate other pressures on the species by banning commercial trade in polar bear specimens, including hunting trophies, most of which come from Canada. Greenland has already established a voluntary export ban on all polar bear products, so would not be affected by the uplisting. Nor would indigenous hunters in Greenland or other range states be prevented from continuing to hunt polar bears for subsistence use, or domestic trade in their parts.

In 2007, polar bear scientists projected that two-thirds of the world’s surviving polar bears could disappear by mid-century, but even this shocking statistic is conservative as recent loss of sea ice has exceeded predictions. As habitat is lost, the polar bear—whose population is estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000—will not be able to adapt quickly enough to a terrestrial-based life. As a result, populations will be rapidly depleted. Given the species’ slow maturation, long interval between births, and small litter sizes, recovery would be slow and extremely precarious, at best. Added to this pressure is the impact on polar bear fertility and health from contaminants accumulating in the food chain, as well as disturbance from increased vessel traffic and oil and gas development as the bear’s arctic habitat becomes more accessible to humans.

Hunting polar bears for international trade and sport occurs only in Canada, where about 600 are hunted annually, with most trophies and/or parts traded internationally. Of the estimated 5,000–6,000 polar bears traded internationally between 2001 and 2010, Canada exported over three-quarters, including 3,261 skins, 861 trophies, 284 bodies, and five live animals. Market demand for polar bear skins has strengthened significantly in recent years and is driving up prices paid to hunters as well as retail prices; a hide can fetch as much as $63,000 in China. Adoption of the Appendix I listing proposal could help to diminish at least one serious threat to this symbol of the Arctic.

Oceanic Whitetip Shark - Include the oceanic whitetip shark in Appendix II Support. Photo by Jurgen Donauer.Sharks

Other than the great white, basking, and whale sharks, which are listed on Appendix II, previous efforts to list commercially exploited fish such as sharks and tuna on the CITES appendices have met fierce opposition from Japan, China, and their allies. Those countries oppose the regulation by an international treaty of such highly valuable species that they believe should be managed on a regional basis. AWI is deeply concerned about voracious demand from Asia for sharks—or more specifically, their fins—for soup and medicine, and has been working hard to persuade CITES parties to provide greater protection at CoP16 for several shark species imperiled by this demand, by listing them on Appendix II. Our efforts are focused on listing proposals for three species of hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini, Sphyrna mokarran, Sphyrna zygaena) and the porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus), proposed by the European Union; the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), proposed by Brazil, Colombia, and the United States; the freshwater sawfish (Pristis microdon), proposed by Australia, and all manta rays (Manta spp.), proposed by Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador.

AWI is also helping other SSN members promote proposals to list on Appendix II, or uplist to Appendix I, more than thirty species of turtles, terrapins, and tortoises that are over-exploited for food or the international pet trade. Other proposals include efforts to protect the Mangshan pit viper (Protobothrops mangshanensis) and New Zealand green geckos (Naultinus spp.) from the pet trade, and species of ebony and rosewood used to make musical instruments, furniture, souvenirs, and perfume.

CITES can only successfully protect traded species from over-exploitation if its rules are clear, properly implemented by all parties, and if enforcement actions are taken against those countries that fail to adequately implement the Convention. At each CoP, much of the agenda is devoted exclusively to issues relating to the functioning of the treaty and this meeting will be no exception. Committee II, which will meet daily for the first week of the conference, will address many issues important to AWI, including the regulation of international trade in hunting trophies, tourist souvenirs, and fish caught on the high seas outside the jurisdiction of any country; the disposal of illegally-traded or confiscated specimens; and the making of “non-detriment findings.”

None of these discussions can proceed, however, until the parties have adopted the rules of procedure for the meeting. Far from a formality, this promises to be a difficult discussion. For years, many parties have taken comfort from a rule allowing votes to be conducted by secret ballot if just 10 other parties agree. With many countries more than happy to hide their vote from the world at large, or from their constituents in particular, many important decisions, including votes on the most controversial species-listing proposals at recent CoPs, have been taken in secret (including those for elephants, whales, tuna, sharks, and polar bears).

AWI deplores this lack of transparency and accountability and hopes that CITES will take a big step at this meeting to bring it closer to other UN agreements that only allow secret ballots for the election of officers and decisions on meeting venues. The European Union has proposed changing CITES’ rules of procedure to require that a motion to conduct a vote by secret ballot must be supported by a simple majority of parties. Mexico has suggested a different change to the rules, proposing that a motion for a secret ballot must be supported by one-third of the parties. While we appreciate Mexico’s effort to find a compromise, AWI will encourage parties to support the EU’s proposal.

After the disappointment of CoP15, where efforts to gain protections for a number of species, particularly sharks, were defeated as politics trumped science, AWI hopes for and will be working toward more positive results from CoP16. Though obtaining CITES listing for the species to be debated at CoP16 will not solve all conservation concerns, it would help reduce the threat to these species of unsustainable legal and illegal trade. The highlights (and lowlights) of the meeting will be reported later this year in the Quarterly.

Proposal AWI's Recommendation


Transfer the polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I



Establish a zero export quota for hunting trophies of white rhinoceros from South Africa and Swaziland



Prevent any proposals to allow trade in African elephant ivory from any populations before 2017



Transfer the West African manatee from Appendix II to Appendix I



Delete Sonnerat’s junglefowl from Appendix II



Transfer the American crocodile population in the Bay of Cispata from Appendix I to Appendix II



Transfer the saltwater crocodile from
Appendix I to Appendix II with a zero export
quota for wild specimens



Transfer the Siamese crocodile from Appendix I to Appendix II with a zero export quota for wild specimens



Include the New Zealand green geckos in Appendix II



Include the Mangshan pit viper in Appendix II



Transfer the Roti Island snake-necked turtle from Appendix II to Appendix I


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Include the spotted turtle, Blanding’s turtle, and diamondback terrapin in Appendix II



Include 1 genus (Cyclemys) and 10 species of freshwater turtles in Appendix II and adopt a zero export quota for wild caught turtles from 15 species for commercial purposes



Transfer the Indochinese box turtle from Appendix II to Appendix I



Include the Ryukyu black-breasted leaf turtle in Appendix II with a zero export quota for wild specimens for commercial purposes



Transfer the Annam leaf turtle from Appendix II to Appendix I



Transfer big-headed turtles from Appendix II
to Appendix I



Transfer the Burmese star tortoise from Appendix II to Appendix I



Include 8 species of softshell turtles in Appendix II and transfer Chitra chitra and Chitra vandijki from Appendix II to Appendix I



Include the Machalilla poison dart frog in Appendix II



Include the oceanic whitetip shark in Appendix II



Include the scalloped, great, and smooth hammerhead sharks in Appendix II



Include the porbeagle shark in Appendix II



Transfer the freshwater sawfish from Appendix II to Appendix I



Include manta rays in Appendix II



Include the Ceja river stingray in Appendix II



Include the Ocellate river and Rosette river stingrays in Appendix II