CITES 2002: Scales Tip Toward Wildlife Conservation

By Adam M. Roberts and Ben White

As the city's stray dogs lazed in the sun near a busy street outside the Convention Center, delegates from more than 150 nations debated the fate of dozens of threatened and endangered species during the 12th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) this past November in Santiago, Chile.

After two grueling weeks meeting with government representatives, talking to the media, and distributing information, countless animals and plants now face a more secure future. CITES Parties once again rejected Japan's attempt to resume a legal international trade in minke and Bryde's whales. They also approved protection for two shark species, (whale shark and basking shark), seahorses, the Black Sea bottlenose dolphin, a number of freshwater turtles and tortoises and various reptiles in Madagascar, the yellow-naped and yellow-headed parrots, the blue-headed macaw, mahogany, and the monkey puzzle tree. A number of victories were particularly hard-won.

Surely the participants in the CITES process have tired of Japan's repeated attempts to circumvent the International Whaling Commission, which is the competent international body for making decisions related to the trade in whale parts and products. The proposals to resume trade in minke and Bryde's whales, for instance, painfully brought back year after year, garner less support with each submission, despite obdurate pressure by the Japanese delegation and the pro-whaling lobby.

Meanwhile, accusations continue to fly about Japan using foreign aid to "buy" the votes of small island nations in the Caribbean. The outspoken, often comical interventions in support of Japan by the representative of Antigua and Barbuda did little to dispel these rumors. Japan, having been beaten down and defeated again, should abandon its cruel pursuit of a return to the miserable days of commercial whaling once and for all.

CITES Parties also wisely voted against the United Kingdom's proposal to allow the trade in products of the highly endangered green sea turtle from a farm in the Cayman Islands. Questions swirled around the meeting as to the legality of some of the turtles in the farm-it is highly probable that some of the founder stock, the animals used in the initial breeding program, were acquired illegally. There are also serious welfare implications for the cruelly-housed animals at the facility. Dr. Rob Atkinson, Head of the Wildlife Department of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said, "In my opinion, the Cayman Turtle Farm fails to match the welfare standards that would be required in the UK. 42.6% of turtle hatchlings from the farm are dead within the first 18 months, a further 17.1% die within 42 months."

For some species, victory was actually snatched from the jaws of defeat. Although the four good proposals to offer international protection to the Black Sea bottlenose dolphin, both sharks, and mahogany were narrowly defeated in Committee, vigorous campaigning led to a reopening of the discussion on these issues in the full Plenary session during the second week of the Conference. Whale sharks and basking sharks need international protection from the trade in their fins, meat, and oils; the dolphins in question are the first marine mammals protected by CITES from live capture for the public display industry; mahogany is the first commercially traded tropical timber species to be protected. We pursued those countries that either abstained from voting or were absent from these important votes, and, as a result, each of these proposals was ultimately approved in turn in Plenary. UK Minister Elliot Morley deserves special commendation for his leadership on the basking shark proposal, and the delegation from the former Soviet state of Georgia worked diligently to secure this new protection for the bottlenose dolphin.

The Georgians also helped shepherd through a modest but important victory for the world's bears, cruelly slaughtered for their gallbladders and bile. It was suggested by the CITES Secretariat that an important resolution on Conservation of and Trade in Bears, which was passed unanimously in 1997, should be gutted. Not only did we succeed in maintaining the resolution language but we also got additional decisions approved at this meeting calling on certain countries to take demonstrable actions to eliminate the illegal international trade in bear parts.

Of course, not every decision benefited species in need. The Parties failed to act in a measurable way to protect the dwindling global stock of Patagonian toothfish, sold in restaurants in the U.S. and elsewhere as Chilean Sea Bass. Vicuna, found in South America, were downlisted from Appendix I to Appendix II to allow for increased and easier international trade in vicuna cloth and vicuna wool products from Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, despite the fact that these animals are still poached in the wild for their wool and meat. 

Clearly, the biggest disappointment was on the elephant ivory trade and the United States' role in the elephant debate, which was dominated by contentious, often vitriolic verbal sparring. In the end, Zimbabwe and Zambia were defeated in their attempts to trade ivory legally. Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa lost their effort to trade in ivory annually but were given tentative approval to sell off their ivory stockpiles if CITES, after May 2004, is satisfied that certain conditions have been met.

AWI was terribly disappointed in the United States delegation's impotent stand on the ivory issue. The U.S. delegation, headed by Judge Craig Manson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tried to broker a deal to allow the sale of stockpiled ivory under certain conditions while removing the request to sell additional ivory on an annual basis. They didn't even share their amendment language with the African proponent countries before offering it on the floor! Why the U.S. would offer a compromise allowing the trade in ivory instead of standing firm in support of America's historic opposition to such a deadly trade is mystifying and unjustifiable. Our own government, despite receiving more than 10,000 emails in the few days leading up to the vote, actually voted in favor of the proposals by Namibia and South Africa to resume ivory trade. This is also despite strong letters from the United States House of Representatives and Senate urging opposition to the international commercial ivory trade. Back in October, one-fifth of the U.S. Senate wrote to Mr. Manson urging such opposition, noting, "The United States must not stand idly by and watch as elephant carcasses once again unceremoniously litter the African savannah-their tusks carved off with chain-saws to satisfy global greed."

AWI had asked the U.S. delegation for its position on the ivory trade proposals for weeks, but the U.S. was more tight-lipped and secretive than ever-totally taking itself out of the equation and marginalizing itself throughout the discussion during the meeting over the previous week. The United States portrays itself as a global conservation leader, yet the delegation clearly acted irresponsibly during this CITES meeting.

There is a very real fear that the decision on elephants will spur increased elephant poaching in Asia and Africa and provide an easy opportunity to launder illegal ivory. Elephant poachers and ivory profiteers will only see the headline that reads: "CITES approves ivory sales from Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa," while missing the fine print that the sale is not unconditional.

AWI will continue to work to stop the overexploitation of threatened and endangered species for international commercial trade, especially in its role as a vital part of the Species Survival Network, a global coalition working to ensure strict enforcement of CITES. The next CITES meeting takes place in Thailand, tentatively scheduled for late 2004.

For background on the issues discussed at the meeting, please see the previous two issues of the Quarterly, both of which are available on our website, please click here . You can also read daily reports from Santiago here and get a full overview of CITES at