Do We Take Care of Our Own?

CITES COP 13, Bangkok, Thailand, October 2-14, 2004

Do We Take Care of Our Own?

The United States has long portrayed itself as a global leader in wildlife conservation, but this leadership is increasingly marginalized as a result of pressure from exploiters.

At CITES the U.S. is proposing to weaken international protection for two signature species—the bobcat (Lynx rufus) and the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

The U.S. has proposed to "downlist" bald eagles from Appendix I to Appendix II of CITES, thus allowing international commercial trade in the species. There were an estimated 250,000 bald eagles in America when it was designated our national symbol in 1782. By 1963 there were only thought to be 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states.

While the bald eagle has demonstrated a wonderful—though incomplete—recovery in recent decades, bringing the fragile species literally back from the brink of extinction, the species has not stabilized across the entirety of its range. As the U.S. proposal admits, habitat availability and populations of the species in neighboring Mexico are both "relatively low and somewhat fragmented."

Bald eagles remain at risk nationally from pollutants, diseases, electrocutions from power lines, poisonings, and poaching. The primary uses for bald eagles are the international live animal trade for zoos (which remains fundamentally unaffected by the current Appendix I listing) and domestic ceremonial use by Native American groups (which, if internal in the U.S. is not a CITES international trade issue).

The U.S. proposal recognizes that "accurate data on illicit international trade is not easy to acquire." The burden of proof remains with the U.S. delegation to show conclusively that there will be no increase in illegal trade, threat to localized populations of bald eagles in America, or decline in the population in Mexico from a potential reopening of the commercial international trade in bald eagles. Absent such proof, the species should remain on Appendix I.

The bobcat proposal is suggesting complete removal of the species from CITES (currently listed on Appendix II). The U.S. has tried this in the past, but failed since bobcat skins and products made from them are similar in appearance to other cat skins from highly endangered felid species. The Convention text specifically allows the listing of species on Appendix II if the listing of those species is necessary to keep the trade in other, more imperiled species, under control.

The U.S. proposal inexplicably relies on population data from 1988 and assesses population trends using data from 1996. Despite the animal's abundance based on those distant estimates, the bobcat is the most heavily-traded cat species, and that trade could put the species' long-term viability at risk in certain areas. According to trade data compiled by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 16,895 skins on average were traded internationally each year between 1997 and 2002. Meat, live animals, and bodies were also traded.

With bobcats legally killed in two-thirds of American states and almost 200 illegal bobcat specimens seized in the past six years, international trade regulations under CITES should remain.