CITES CoP16: Successes and Failures

The 16th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was poised to be historic. Not only was 2013 the 40th anniversary of CITES, but never before had so many commercially valuable and highly exploited species been proposed for listing in the CITES appendices—which determine what trade protections will be afforded to the species by CITES parties. After a fortnight of deliberations and debate in Bangkok, Thailand, the results were indeed historic, as the 178 CITES Parties agreed to international protections for a cavalcade of species at risk. Unlike the dismal results of the 2010 CITES meeting—when every single marine species proposal was rejected—in Bangkok, science sometimes prevailed over politics, palates, and profiteering.

The West African manatee was upgraded from Appendix II to Appendix I, thereby forbidding the commercial trade in its meat, skin, bones or genitalia. AWI worked extensively with other conservationists and the countries of Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Benin to achieve this conservation victory, which was needed to stem the population’s decline, loss of habitat, and illegal slaughter for domestic and international trade.

Similarly, oceanic whitetip, hammerhead, and porbeagle sharks were added to CITES Appendix II, despite objections from China, Japan and their allies. Such listings and the resulting regulation of trade in these species are urgently needed, as their unsustainable slaughter—primarily for the shark fin trade—has led to population declines of 99 percent or more in some areas. According to a recent paper published in Marine Policy, which supplements reams of scientific evidence documenting these species’ precipitous decline, between 63 and 273 million sharks are killed each year; many are finned while still alive. Though other shark species had previously been added to the CITES appendices, these were the first with significant commercial value to be listed.

Australia’s freshwater sawfish was added to Appendix I, and manta rays (Manta spp.) were granted Appendix II protection. Manta rays have experienced significant declines in numbers—up to 86 percent lost in the past 6–8 years in some areas—largely as a result of the burgeoning trade in gill plates used in traditional Asian medicine. Unfortunately, an Appendix II designation was denied for three species of freshwater rays—the Ceja, Ocellate, and Rosette river stingrays.

Over a dozen plant species were listed, with several commercially valuable tree species among them—including Malagasy ebony and various rosewood trees. Ebony and rosewood trees have been felled (frequently illegally) for decades to provide raw wood for high-end musical instruments, furniture, cabinets, gun stocks, pen blanks, and for carving.

Turtles have been recklessly captured, slaughtered, and traded, driving many species to the brink of extinction. Fortunately, CITES extended a lifeline to a variety of turtle species by granting new or enhanced international protections. With Asia’s wild turtle populations largely eliminated due to local demand and the subsequent trade in species from other regions becoming a major concern, the protections provided at this CITES meeting to the Blanding’s turtle, spotted turtle, diamondback terrapin, and a variety of freshwater box turtles were sorely needed. Other reptiles receiving protections were green geckos from New Zealand and the Mangshan pit viper from China. Conversely, proposals to reduce protections for crocodiles from Thailand and Columbia were rejected.

Trade sanctions were agreed upon for Guinea because of its failure to resolve issues relating to trade in great apes. The sanctions prevent Guinea from importing and exporting all of the 35,000 species listed by CITES.

Sadly, there were many negative outcomes to the meeting, as well—most glaringly for polar bears. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence of their precarious position, efforts to secure Appendix I protections for the polar bear were rejected. With no more than 20,000–25,000 polar bears believed to remain in the wild, including 15,000 in Canada, scientists predict that two-thirds will be gone by 2050 as a consequence of climate change and the melting of their offshore ice habitats. While native people kill polar bears in all of the range states (United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Greenland), only Canada permits sport-hunting of polar bears and international trade in polar bear pelts and parts. Of the 600 bears killed annually in Canada, the pelts and parts of 400 are sold internationally, often at high prices. Though an Appendix I listing would not affect indigenous take of polar bears, after a lengthy debate, including an inflammatory intervention by a representative of the Canadian Inuit, the proposal was defeated. The ice bear thus will have to wait at least three years before it can again be considered for protection from commercial international trade.

Over 50,000 elephants have been slaughtered in the past two years, devastating elephant populations and resulting in the deaths of scores of rangers. There is also substantial evidence of criminal syndicates and terrorist groups engaged in elephant poaching. Nearly all experts identify China as the driver of this illegal trade. In Bangkok, however, China continued to deny any role in the slaughter, as well as to dismiss the notion that there is an urgent need to address the ivory trade.

Rather than concede that previous CITES decisions to permit one-off sales of stockpiled ivory had contributed to the current crisis and demand an immediate and indefinite prohibition on all ivory trade—which many conservationists believe is essential to end the slaughter, the CITES parties elected to use Band-Aids to cover this gaping wound: They sent mixed messages about the future of ivory trade by, on one hand, threatening trade sanctions against eight ivory source, transit, or destination countries (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and China) if they do not meaningfully address their role in the ivory trade, while simultaneously discussing a mechanism to permit legal trade. In time, we’ll know if such threats—which CITES has a history of not following up on—will have any effect. If the promises made at the meeting’s opening ceremonies by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand to close its domestic ivory markets—which are used to launder ivory stolen from slaughtered African elephants—are kept, however, this could be of significant value in ending the trade in blood ivory.

Although CITES parties agreed on enhanced reporting requirements for Vietnam, China, and other countries caught up in the illegal trade in rhino horns, given the gravity of the trade many conservationists had wanted far more drastic actions to be taken—particularly against Vietnam. With over 158 rhinos slaughtered in South Africa already in 2013 as of mid-March, this year could see losses far in excess of the record 668 killed in 2012, and continuing a gruesome escalation in rhino poaching in a country where, as recently as 2007, only 13 rhinos were reported poached.

Vietnam (where rhino horn is falsely claimed to cure cancer, is considered a hangover cure, and is flaunted as a status symbol by the nouveau rich) is driving this trade, and to date has done little to stop it. Though rhino horn is made of keratin—the same material of which human hair and nails are comprised—it’s currently worth more by weight than cocaine and gold. This has led to the killing of a rhino every 11 hours in South Africa, often by criminal syndicates using high-tech equipment. With the body count continuing to rise, current efforts to combat the trade are failing. Aggressive enforcement of a wholesale ban on the domestic and international trade in rhino parts is needed to halt it. Yet, South Africa—despite having taken some steps to address its role in the slaughter—is now considering legalizing trade in rhino horn, a strategy that most conservationists oppose because it will stimulate demand and facilitate laundering of illegally obtained horn.

A mere 3,500 tigers are thought to survive in the wild. It was therefore shocking that, despite expanding threats to tigers and their habitats, despite thousands of tigers languishing in captivity in China and elsewhere (as living stockpiles of tiger parts, should legal international trade ever reopen), and despite evidence of domestic trade in tiger parts within China, virtually no attention was paid to tigers during the meeting. While CITES parties agreed to request more information from tiger range states on tiger trade and on wild and captive tigers, such requests made in the past have been largely ignored, without any penalty for non-compliance.

As the meeting concluded, the positive results for sharks, trees, turtles, and other species provided hope both for their future and the integrity of CITES. Yet, with levels of legal and illegal trade at all-time highs, coupled with massive habitat loss, a burgeoning human population, and a seemingly endless number of threats to all species, the glaring lack of urgency by CITES parties detracted from the conservation gains. If CITES celebrates an 80th anniversary, will there be wild elephants, rhinos, tigers, polar bears, sharks, turtles and other species left to protect, or will human greed, corruption, selfishness, and ignorance have relegated them to the memories of those who failed to protect them?

The CITES Appendices
Appendices I, II and III to the Convention are lists of species afforded different levels or types of protection from over-exploitation by the CITES parties.

Appendix I lists species that are considered the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. International commercial trade in these species is prohibited.

Appendix II lists species that may become endangered unless trade is closely controlled. International trade in these species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate.

Appendix III lists species included at the request of a CITES party that already regulates trade in the species and needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. International trade in these species is allowed only on presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates.

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