CITES Parties Meet in Sri Lanka to Address Trade in Wildlife

In late May, thousands of government delegates, conservationists, scientists, industry lobbyists, and others will gather in Colombo, Sri Lanka, for the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP18) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Three representatives from AWI—D.J. Schubert, Sue Fisher, and Johanna Hamburger—will participate in the meeting, which will feature extensive deliberations over the course of two weeks on 56 proposals covering over 200 species and subspecies. Nearly 100 working documents pertaining to the implementation and interpretation of the treaty will also be discussed. The outcome will help determine species survival and ensure that CITES is equipped to address future wildlife conservation and international trade challenges.

CITES was created in 1973 to address the unregulated international trade in wildlife and wildlife products. Species may be listed on one of three CITES appendices, designating different levels of protection. Those deemed most in danger of extinction are listed on Appendix I; international commercial trade in these animals is, for the most part, prohibited. Appendix II lists species that are not currently threatened by extinction but may become so unless trade is closely controlled. (Appendix II also includes “look-alike species” whose specimens in trade look like those of species listed for conservation reasons.) Appendix III lists species protected in at least one country that has asked other parties to the treaty for assistance in controlling the trade.

Various proposals to be discussed at CoP18 seek to add or remove species from these appendices or move species from one appendix to another. Tarantulas, guitarfish, saiga antelopes, giraffes, mako sharks, rhinoceroses, elephants, and a number of reptiles and amphibians are among the animals under discussion at CoP18. A sampling of the species proposals and working documents to be deliberated at CoP18 is provided below.


Tajikistan proposes to downlist the Heptner’s markhor, a wild goat species targeted by trophy hunters, from Appendix I to II. While Heptner’s markhor numbers have increased since the late 1990s, the species continues to be threatened by poaching, disease, and overutilization of its habitat by livestock. This proposal is unnecessary, as noncommercial trade in hunting trophies is permitted even for Appendix I species. It also could complicate law enforcement efforts, since Heptner’s markhor horns can be difficult to distinguish from horns of Appendix I markhor subspecies.

Namibia proposes to downlist its southern white rhino population from Appendix I to II for the purpose of permitting trade in live rhinos and hunting trophies. This proposal—like Tajikistan’s markhor proposal—is unnecessary, since live rhinos and rhino hunting trophies can be traded internationally for noncommercial purposes under the current Appendix I designation. There are just over 1,000 white rhinos in Namibia living in 70 subpopulations that remain susceptible to poaching and illegal trade. Since 2010, more than 130 rhinos have been poached in Namibia, with poaching rates spiking in 2015 and 2016. When poachers are arrested, they rarely suffer any consequences; from 2016 through 2018 there was only one successful prosecution out of 85 cases.

Mongolia and the United States propose to uplist the saiga antelope from Appendix II to I. Saiga populations declined from 1.25 million in the 1970s to just over 152,000 today. Saiga are highly susceptible to disease and changing environmental conditions, with multiple die-offs reported in the past several years, including the loss of 211,000 in Mongolia in 2015. While saiga habitat has been lost and degraded, largely due to livestock grazing, the primary threat to the species is illegal hunting for national and international trade in saiga meat, horns, and horn products, which some believe have medicinal value. Since only male saiga have horns, the poaching of males significantly skews the population’s sex ratio, contributing to population declines and the complete collapse of some populations.

Zambia proposes to transfer its African elephant population from Appendix I to II with an annotation to permit commercial trade in hides, leather products, and raw ivory with CITES-approved trading partners and to permit noncommercial trade in hunting trophies. In 2015, Zambia had approximately 27,000 elephants—a mere fraction of the 250,000 elephants in that country in the 1960s. Zambia downplays or ignores evidence that warrants retaining its elephant population on Appendix I, including conflicting 2015 population estimates, population declines between 2008 and 2015, the near-extirpation of some populations, ongoing habitat loss, and increased poaching. There is also a complete lack of evidence that downlistings or sales of stockpiled ivory reduce elephant poaching.

Burkina Faso and 10 other African countries seek to uplist elephant populations in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe from Appendix II to I. Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, on the other hand, propose to amend the annotation to the Appendix II listing of elephants in those countries to permit, without restriction, sales of stockpiled ivory. If the latter proposal were to be approved, it would reestablish a commercial trade in ivory, further decimating elephant populations by facilitating the laundering of illegal ivory.

In evaluating the relative merits of these two competing proposals, the following facts are pertinent: In 1800, there were an estimated 26 million elephants in Africa. Only 415,000 remain, with poachers killing 20,000 animals each year to satisfy the global demand for ivory. Between 2006 and 2015 alone, a reported 111,000 elephants were killed by poachers, but the actual number is likely much higher. Meanwhile, the range of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) contracted by 36 percent between 2002 and 2011. Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) lost 30 percent of their range (and their numbers dropped 62 percent) over the same time period. In 1989, when all elephants in Africa were on Appendix I (lumped together at that time as a single species), the global ivory market collapsed and elephant populations began to recover. A decade later, when elephant populations in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe were downlisted to Appendix II, poaching rates increased, particularly after a legal sale of stockpiled ivory in 2008. Recently, poaching rates have again increased in these southern African countries, causing a drop in elephant numbers in Botswana and Zimbabwe. Clearly, an uplisting is warranted. Another sale of stockpiled ivory is not.

Israel and Kenya propose listing the wooly mammoth on Appendix II under the look-alike provision, given the similarities between mammoth and elephant ivory. Although the last remnant woolly mammoth populations died out around 3,700 years ago, regulation of the burgeoning trade in mammoth ivory is needed to prevent the illegal laundering or mislabeling of elephant ivory products as mammoth ivory, as has been documented in China and the United States. As permafrost has thawed due to climate change, mammoth ivory has become increasingly available—particularly in Russia, which annually exports tons of mammoth ivory to China.

Chad, Senegal, Mali, Niger, the Central African Republic, and Kenya propose to list the giraffe on Appendix II. Since the 1980s, giraffe numbers have declined by at least 36 percent, from an already diminished 163,000 to 97,500 today. Giraffes populations are also threatened by habitat loss, legal and illegal killing via strangling snares (including for bushmeat), civil unrest, and international trade in hunting trophies, bone carvings, and other products. From 2006 to 2015, over 39,500 giraffe specimens were imported into the United States, including nearly 3,800 hunting trophies.

India, Nepal, and Bangladesh propose the transfer of the smooth-coated otter from Appendix II to I, while India, Nepal, and the Philippines seek to list the Asian small-clawed otter on Appendix II. The population of these two otters has declined by 30 percent over the past three decades due to massive habitat loss and intense poaching to supply the international trade in pelts and live animals as pets. Both species are found in a limited number of areas and, with few exceptions, their populations are small and declining. While some legal commercial trade is reported, the illegal trade is a significant and increasing threat to the species. Globally, from 1980 to 2018 there were over 250 otter seizures involving over 6,000 specimens (mostly pelts) from both species. More recently, advertisements for pet otters have increased, as have seizures of live otters that were destined for the pet trade.

Amphibians and Reptiles

Sri Lanka proposes to list its endemic hump snout lizard on Appendix I. This lizard is in high demand in the international pet trade due to its spectacular coloration, resulting in a decline in population. Since 2011, significant numbers of illegally collected hump snout lizards have been documented in trade in Europe, Asia, and the United States. While some specimens are identified as captive bred, the majority are wild caught. (It is common for traffickers to claim wild-caught animals are captive bred in order to launder them into legal trade channels.) This species is also threatened by habitat loss due to deforestation and other anthropogenic impacts.

India, Bangladesh, Senegal, and Sri Lanka propose to uplist the Indian star tortoise from Appendix II to I due to declining numbers and overcollection for the international pet trade. Its ease of capture and low reproduction rates make this species particularly susceptible to overexploitation—it is, in fact, the tortoise species most often seized from smugglers. One study found that at a single location, 55,000 Indian star tortoises were illegally removed from the wild in one year—three to six times more animals than previously reported as collected throughout the star tortoise’s entire range. Habitat is also being lost or fragmented at a rapid pace, resulting in local extirpations.

The European Union, India, the United States, and the Philippines propose to list the Tokay gecko on Appendix II. The species is primarily threatened by international trade for traditional medicine and, to a lesser degree, as pets. Taiwan imported approximately 15 million Tokay geckos from 2003 to 2014. During 2017–2018, Thailand exported 1.45 million live and dried specimens. Population declines have been reported in several range states, including a 50 percent decline in Bangladesh.

China, the European Union, and Vietnam propose an Appendix II listing for 13 warty newt species endemic to China and Vietnam. Many of the species are collected for food and traditional medicine (mostly in national trade), and the pet trade (national and international), with overexploitation considered a threat for several species. Their forest and grassland habitat is also under threat, with a 30 percent decline in forest habitat in China over the past 50 years and an 80 percent decline in Vietnam over the past 20 years. Between 2000 and 2016, the United States imported over 38,000 warty newts. Half of them are reportedly from the wild, although this is considered an underestimate.

Kenya and the United States propose to transfer the pancake tortoise from Appendix II to I. Commercial trade is the major threat to this animal, followed by habitat loss. The species is vulnerable to extinction due to its restrictive habitat requirements, low densities, fragmented populations, low reproductive potential, high mortality rate of eggs and hatchlings, and overexploitation for the international pet trade. The population has declined by 80 percent in the past 30 years. Since 1975, over 47,000 animals (more than 25,000 of whom were labeled as captive bred) have been exported, primarily to Japan, the United States, and the European Union. Trade has increased over the past 20 years, with a number of states that are not range states reporting exports.

China, the European Union, and Vietnam propose an Appendix II listing for 13 endemic species of cave, tiger, and leopard geckos from China and Vietnam that are losing habitat and under increased pressure from the international pet trade. These species are habitat specialists that live in low densities within restricted ranges, with many found only in a single locality. They have been popular in international trade since the 1990s, with most removed from the wild for export to the European Union and the United States.

China, the European Union, and Vietnam propose to list all species of crocodile newts on Appendix II. These species generally occupy restricted ranges in highly fragmented and shrinking habitats. Population numbers are small, generally ranging from a few animals to a few hundred. Crocodile newts are collected for food, traditional medicine, and the international pet trade, with exports primarily to the European Union, Japan, and the United States. Records show that between 1999 and 2017, the United States imported over 35,200 crocodile newts, mostly removed from the wild.

Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Peru propose to list 17 species of glass frogs on Appendix I and another 87 on Appendix II. The species are popular as pets due in part to their transparent abdominal skin. The 17 species proposed for Appendix I listing have restricted areas of distribution, and their population numbers are declining due to extreme habitat loss and collection for the international pet trade. The remaining 87 Appendix II–proposed species are regularly traded, exist in threatened habitat, and/or need to be listed for look-alike reasons to facilitate enforcement efforts. Between 2004 and 2016, the United States imported over 2,100 glass frogs from seven of the species proposed for listing; the European Union is also involved in the trade.


Sri Lanka and the United States are proposing to include 15 tarantula species on Appendix II to protect eight of those species whose populations are declining. The other seven species are being proposed due to look-alike concerns. Collection for the international pet trade is a significant threat for several of the species. The United States imported nearly 23,000 live tarantulas between 2006 and 2017, with the majority coming from European countries. Most are wild caught and passed off as bred in captivity. As tarantulas are arboreal spiders, deforestation destroys their habitat. Their low reproduction and high juvenile mortality rates make them highly susceptible to overexploitation.


Over two dozen countries, led by Senegal, propose to list the blackchin and sharpnose guitarfish and four other species of guitarfish on Appendix II. (Guitarfish are a family of rays.) The high value of fins in international trade has led to massive killing of blackchins and sharpnoses, resulting in significant population declines. They have been extirpated from the northern Mediterranean Sea, and population declines of at least 80 percent have been documented in the eastern Atlantic and Indian oceans. In 2014, an estimated 5,000 tons of guitarfish were landed, although this is considered an underestimate. The other four guitarfish species are proposed for an Appendix II listing under the look-alike provision due to the difficulty in distinguishing fins from different guitarfish species.

Benin, the European Union, and 20 other countries propose an Appendix II listing of shortfin and longfin mako sharks. For the shortfin mako, trade in its valuable meat and fins needs to be regulated to avoid further population declines and ensure the species’ survival. Listing of the longfin mako is needed since the detached fins of the two species are nearly indistinguishable from each other in trade. Mako sharks are highly susceptible to capture in unregulated and largely unmanaged fisheries. As unsustainable (and likely underreported) capture rates have increased, mako populations have declined by 60 to 96 percent throughout most of their range. Approximately 1 million mako shark fins are traded each year.

Working Documents

Many of the working documents contain draft resolutions and decisions. Resolutions, if approved, will establish new, long-term direction for the CITES secretariat, its three committees (Animals, Plants, and Standing), parties to the treaty, and nongovernmental organizations. Decisions provide short-term instructions to resolve issues of concern. Other documents are intended to stimulate discussion on wildlife trade issues that warrant further consideration.

The subject matter of the working documents are as varied as the species proposals, ranging from budgeting and strategic planning to food security, national laws implementing CITES, and how CITES regulates trade in specimens from synthetic or cultured DNA.

In addition to those matters, AWI is interested in the following issues that are addressed in other working documents: the treaty’s effect on livelihoods, rural community participation, wildlife demand reduction strategies, combatting wildlife cybercrime, disposition of confiscated specimens, illegal trade reports, working conditions for wildlife rangers, international trade in live African elephants, trophy hunting quotas, management of stocks and stockpiles, trade in specimens collected prior to an Appendix I listing, and management of captive-bred and ranched specimens. The outcome of these discussions will define the role of CITES in regulating trade in both live and dead wildlife, animals taken from the wild, captive-bred animals, and animals sold online. It will have implications for animal welfare and the rangers who risk their lives to protect the world’s biodiversity.

Participants will make important decisions on species-specific working documents on cheetahs, elephants, rhinos, eels, corals, seahorses, sharks/rays, pangolins, big cats, great apes, ornamental fish, dolphins, birds, ungulates, and the totoaba—an Appendix I–listed fish whose illegal take and trade is contributing to the extinction of the vaquita porpoise (another Appendix I species that is down to 22 or fewer individuals). For many species, these deliberations will determine how to improve trade regulation, identify and combat illegal trade, and improve understanding of trade characteristics and impacts to the species. For the vaquita, the decision will help determine whether this, the world’s smallest cetacean, goes extinct in the very near future.

CoP18, like past meetings, will be a test for all participants to determine if decisions will be based on sound science or if greed and profit will prevail. AWI’s team will work alongside colleagues from around the world, including government delegates and members of the Species Survival Network, to achieve pro-conservation victories and ensure that the treaty itself is strengthened. AWI will also honor a number of wildlife conservation heroes with the Clark R. Bavin Wildlife Law Enforcement Award. This award is given to those who have excelled in enforcing wildlife protection laws, including some who sacrificed their lives in the fight against wildlife crime and will be recognized posthumously.

Over the past 46 years, CITES has struggled to keep pace with an exponential increase in demand for wildlife and wildlife products and a massive escalation in the illegal wildlife trade. A recent analysis published in Science found that nearly 30 percent of the species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature identifies as threatened by international trade were not listed on either Appendix I or II, and that it takes over a decade for species so identified to come under CITES protection. While CITES is presently the best international instrument to regulate wildlife trade, some, including AWI, question whether its implementation by 183 CITES member governments has matched the treaty’s intent and whether fundamental changes to it may be required to address modern wildlife trade challenges.