The 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) took place in Geneva, Switzerland, in August. It began on a somber note, with expressions of condolences to the government and people of Sri Lanka, where the CoP was originally to be held in May, for the tragic loss of lives in the April terrorist attacks.
Three AWI representatives—D.J. Schubert, Sue Fisher, and Johanna Hamburger—attended, along with over 100 colleagues from the Species Survival Network, an AWI-cofounded global coalition of animal protection and conservation organizations. Over two weeks, thousands of delegates from countries and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) negotiated over 100 documents addressing technical issues related to the implementation and enforcement of the convention and debated the merits of more than 55 proposals to change the protection status of species listed in the CITES appendices. Of these, Appendix I is reserved for species threatened with extinction and affected by international trade; Appendix II lists species deemed not currently in danger of extinction but which may become so due to international trade. In general, commercial trade in Appendix I species is prohibited. International trade in Appendix II species is allowed but ostensibly regulated to ensure sustainability and prevent harm to the species.
The day before the start of the CoP, the CITES Standing Committee met to deliberate a variety of matters. Of particular interest to AWI: Japan’s ongoing trade in sei whale meat (see back page) and Mexico’s application to register a captive breeding facility for totoaba with the CITES secretariat so that it could legally trade in totoaba parts. The totoaba is an Appendix I–listed fish whose swim bladder is coveted on the black market in Asia. This illegal trade strongly affects another endangered species: the vaquita porpoise. Death by entanglement in gillnets set for wild totoaba in the Upper Gulf of California has driven the vaquita toward the precipice of extinction; fewer than 19 individuals are estimated to remain.
AWI strongly opposes any trade in captive-bred totoaba because it will increase demand for totoaba products, incentivize poaching, and provide a means to launder parts from wild-caught fish. Instead of rejecting the application as AWI advocated, the Standing Committee deferred a decision until 2020, when more information, including an analysis of how legal trade in totoaba could impact the wild population, will be available.
During the CoP itself, the United States and other countries expressed grave concern over Mexico’s utter failure to stop totoaba poaching and trade in totoaba swim bladders. While the parties did not support a call for trade sanctions against Mexico, as urged by AWI and our allies, they did agree to decisions that could lead to such trade sanctions at the next meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in 2020.
Notwithstanding these disappointing decisions to put off responses to a crisis that demands urgent action, CoP18 can generally be viewed in a positive light, as it resulted in greater protection from international trade for a number of imperiled species. The following species were added to Appendix I (moved up from Appendix II in some cases) due to declining populations, restricted range, and unsustainable trade: saiga antelope, small-clawed and smooth-coated otters, black-crowned crane, Grenadines clawed gecko, pancake and star tortoises, riverside and Mindoro peacock swallowtail butterflies, several horned and pygmy lizard species, and Bourret’s box, Vietnamese box, and Vietnamese pond turtles. Conversely, some species, most notably the vicuna and American crocodile, were downlisted from Appendix I to Appendix II due to population recovery and a reduction in threats from international trade—although for the American crocodile, trade in any wild-caught animals for commercial purposes was prohibited.
Far more species were added to Appendix II, including the giraffe, spiny-tailed iguana, spider-tailed horned viper, longfin and shortfin mako sharks, and multiple species of guitarfish, wedgefish, ornamental tarantula spider, newt, and gecko. They were listed to provide increased protections from the adverse impacts of unregulated trade, population declines, or a restricted range, or because of the look-alike provision, which permits similar-looking species to be given the same level of protection as their more endangered counterparts.
Most of these proposals were adopted by consensus, but several were highly contentious. For the giraffe, despite a 40 percent population decline in recent decades, the critically endangered status of some subspecies, and increasing international demand and trade in giraffe parts, a number of countries expressed opposition to this proposal. Some, primarily the southern African countries, proposed an amendment to exclude themselves from the Appendix II listing. Fortunately, that amendment was overwhelmingly rejected by vote and the proposal passed with 83 percent support.
Several parties disagreed over the status of mako sharks, with some claiming that populations were robust and that their management was best left to Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs). Others, however, emphasized the decline in shark numbers and the fact that voluntary measures adopted by RFMOs have not worked to conserve the species. The parties ultimately voted to support the listings.
Proposals related to elephants and rhinoceroses generated the most controversy. Attempts by Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Namibia to reduce CITES protections for their rhino populations failed. Similarly, Zambia’s proposal to downlist its elephant population from Appendix I to II to permit a legal trade in ivory and a proposal to permit a “one-off” sale of raw ivory from government-owned stockpiles in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe were rejected by most parties due to fears they would increase demand for ivory and add to the ongoing elephant poaching epidemic. In contrast, an attempt by Gabon and other countries to address the poaching crisis by including all African elephants in Appendix I
failed. (At present, the populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe are listed in Appendix II.)
Israel’s proposal to list the woolly mammoth, an extinct species, in Appendix II—based on evidence that the trade in woolly mammoth ivory facilitates laundering of products made from elephant ivory—produced mixed results. Although Israel withdrew the proposal given a lack of support, the parties agreed to commission a study on the trade in mammoth ivory and its role in perpetuating the illegal trade in elephant ivory.
CITES implementation was strengthened in several areas, including capacity-building, combatting wildlife cybercrime, and creating a database for information on illegal wildlife trade. The parties also agreed to conduct a second international workshop on “non-detriment findings” (determinations by import and/or export countries that a proposed action will not be detrimental to the survival of a species). Non-detriment findings are a cornerstone of CITES implementation to ensure that trade in Appendix I and II species will not harm the species in the wild.
Efforts to convince parties to revisit a previous initiative, co-led by Israel, to reevaluate a CITES resolution on the disposal of live confiscated CITES specimens and to improve the consideration of animal welfare in the handling and care of such specimens fell short, unfortunately, as many parties continue to ignore or downplay this important welfare issue. However, another animal welfare issue that received considerable attention both at the meeting and in the international press, was the laudable decision to ban the export of live elephants from Zimbabwe and Botswana to captive facilities abroad (see page 2).
Some notable species-specific actions agreed to by the parties include: (1) conducting workshops on amphibian trade to evaluate the impacts of current trade levels on species conservation, (2) studying the trade in CITES-listed sharks, (3) distributing guidance for the management of ivory stockpiles, including their disposal, (4) establishing a CITES Big Cat Task Force to examine international trade in the body parts of big cats, (5) developing a joint work program with the Convention on Migratory Species to advance the African Carnivore Initiative (focused on lions, leopards, cheetahs, and wild dogs), (6) preparing studies on the scope of the illegal jaguar trade and on the scope and scale of a songbird trade that is devastating populations worldwide, and (7) convening a technical workshop to consider the conservation priorities and management needs related to the trade in marine ornamental fish.
Progress was made in closing domestic markets for elephant ivory: The CoP directed parties that have not already closed their domestic ivory markets to report on measures taken to ensure they are not contributing to poaching or illegal trade. It also took steps to tackle the illegal trade in rhino horn, directing countries with illegal rhino horn markets to develop demand-reduction strategies. Several countries involved in the illegal rhino horn trade, including China, Mozambique, and Vietnam, were also directed to initiate joint investigations to identify and stop organized crime networks engaged in the trade.
Despite all of the new listings on the CITES appendices and the adoption of pro-conservation decisions and resolutions, AWI was disappointed by decisions on some important issues. The parties adopted a decision that will not substantively change the status quo regarding the breeding of massive numbers of tigers in captivity—often in dreadful conditions—in China, and another that will not stem the ongoing and unsustainable trade in pangolins and their products. A proposal by Costa Rica and other countries to list 104 species of glass frogs (named for their semi-translucent abdominal skin) failed to secure the required two-thirds support from the parties, missing by only a handful of votes. And despite considerable evidence of continuing illegal trade in live cheetahs, primarily to Middle Eastern countries, several parties, including Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and others, claimed that illegal trade of cheetahs had declined due to enforcement efforts and demand-reduction campaigns. Consequently, no meaningful actions were adopted to study or address the cruel and unsustainable trade and its impact on wild cheetah populations. This issue will surely be revisited in the future.
As the CoP drew to a close, the success of the meeting in advancing species protections and strengthening implementation of the convention was celebrated by most delegates, who understand that CITES, while not perfect, can be part of the solution to the current global biodiversity crisis. That crisis, starkly described in the May 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, requires “transformative change” to conserve and restore global biodiversity. Through ongoing and expanded collaborations involving conservation-oriented countries and organizations to address the survival of species targeted by international wildlife trade, CITES can be part of that transformative change.