Call of the Wild Goes Unanswered

Only minutes into the opening ceremony of the "Call of the Wild"-themed 14th Conference of the Parties (CoP 14) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), it was clear that hopes of gaining trade protections for some of the world’s most imperiled species would become overshadowed by concerns about livelihoods, politics and profits. While these are not CITES criteria for protecting wild species from international trade, what the treaty says and how it is interpreted are entirely different things. In reality, livelihood concerns often trump trade restrictions, and science takes a back seat to politics and profit. Over the course of the two-week meeting, the "Call of the Wild" became a cry for help, as several critically imperiled species were denied international protection.

Not long after the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremony, oft-repeated claims of science as the standard for CITES listing decisions were cast aside in favor of backroom political deals. A proposal by Mozambique to double its sport-hunted leopard export quota to 120 individuals, despite relying on a questionable 20-year-old population estimate of leopards, was approved by consensus—to the delight of the Safari Club International and its cadre of globetrotting trophy hunters. Similarly, Uganda, which also relied on two decades-old data, was awarded an export quota of 28 sport-hunted leopards to sell to wealthy trophy hunters. Fortunately, a proposal by the United States to remove the bobcat’s CITES protection was rejected by a large majority, due to concerns about several look-alike species that could be drastically affected by unregulated trade.

While evidence of declining populations, localized extinction, habitat loss, illegal poaching and international trade is mounting, Algeria’s effort to uplist the Barbary red deer to Appendix II was unsuccessful. The country was successful in gaining Appendix I protection for both the slender-horned and Cuvier’s gazelle, ostensibly halting the trade in these declining species. An Appendix I listing was also approved for the Guatemalan beaded lizard, which is considered one of the most endangered reptiles in the world, with no more than 250 individuals remaining in the wild.

For marine species, the results of CoP 14 were a mixed bag—largely because of a "turf war" between CITES and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) over the listing of marine species. Claiming expertise in marine species management, the FAO’s alleged scientific review of marine fish proposals blocked the listing of a number of species desperately in need of international trade protections. The failed CITES Appendix II listing proposals for the porbeagle shark and spiny dogfish are particularly alarming, given the 90 to 99 percent decline of these species in some areas. In addition to the FAO’s scientifically questionable conclusions, many countries engaged in or profiting from their continued trade further jeopardized their survival by opposing the listings.

Appendix I and II listings were approved for the sawfish species and European eel, respectively. The sawfish trade ban, except for a small live trade exemption in Australia, was overdue considering that this species has experienced a 90 percent decline and has been extirpated from many parts of its former range. It is hoped that the Appendix II listing for the eel will reverse its significant decline caused by over-exploitation for international trade and habitat threats. US efforts to list red and pink corals—heavily exploited for the manufacturing of jewelry—in Appendix II succeeded initially in committee, only to be defeated in plenary after a night of intense lobbying by Tunisia, other user countries and the coral industry.

For the beautiful Banggai cardinalfish, Indonesia’s eleventh hour decision to oppose an Appendix II listing sought by the United States and a complete lack of support from other countries forced a withdrawal of the proposal before a vote. In opposing this listing, Indonesia claimed it was taking steps to protect this species and pleaded with the other delegates to not harm the Banggai people’s "hopes and dreams" by listing the species. Indonesia did not disclose that it has not proactively protected the cardinalfish or its habitat, or that only 60 fishermen are involved in the cardinalfish trade. Without international protection, some experts predict that this species could become extinct within a decade, if collection for the aquaria trade continues at it present pace. Ironically, the species will soon be listed as "endangered" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature—though this designation provides no protection from trade.

While the debate was intense on many species proposals, elephants, whales and tigers generated the most heated controversies. There was concern that China would seek approval to reopen its domestic tiger trade, using parts from the 5,000 tigers imprisoned on its tiger farms (See AWI Quarterly, Spring 2007). Though tiger farm owners continue to push China to rescind the 1993 trade ban, claiming that trade in farmed tiger parts will help save wild tigers, nearly all of the world’s tiger experts agree that it would cause the extinction of tigers in the wild. Fortunately, CITES member countries made it clear to China that lifting the tiger trade ban was unacceptable and would doom wild tigers to extinction. However, China questioned the authority of CITES to dictate its domestic trade decisions and intimated that it may still reopen the domestic trade in tiger parts in the future.

After Japan’s stinging defeats only days earlier at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Anchorage, its efforts to undermine CITES protections for whales provided for both tense and comical theatre. CITES member countries roundly rejected Japan’s proposal to review the listing designation of all great whales—a first step toward downlisting whale species in order to resume international trade in their products. At the same time, a slim majority approved language introduced by Australia to prohibit any such CITES species reviews until and unless the IWC lifts the moratorium against commercial whaling. In the subsequent plenary session, Norway, Iceland, and several of Japan’s "puppet nations" engaged in a belabored exercise in procedural gymnastics, attempting to reopen Australia’s proposal for renewed discussion. They failed, and Australia’s proposal survived intact.

Unlike the whale debate, deliberations over elephants and the ivory trade occurred behind closed doors. Delegates and ministers from the African countries met repeatedly to develop a compromise between contrasting ivory trade proposals. Kenya and Mali, recognizing the significant increase in elephant poaching incidents, proposed a 20-year moratorium on ivory trade. Conversely, several southern African countries, including Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia, sought approval for an annual ivory trade. The resultant deal called for a 9-year moratorium on ivory trading, but only after a one-off sale of nearly all stockpiled ivory from the four countries with Japan. Many experts believe creating such a legal market for ivory will increase the incidence of poaching to feed the increasing demand for ivory in the Far East. Illegal ivory can be laundered easily when so-called "legal" ivory is permitted in the market.

After two weeks of debate and controversy, only a handful of species were provided increased protection from international trade. Even those species’ future depends on the commitment of CITES member countries to implement the treaty—something that few countries appear to embrace. Though CITES may be the best tool available to control the international trade in wild species, it is not a panacea to reverse the severe and ongoing loss of biodiversity on the planet.