Nations Strengthen Wildlife Trade Protections at CITES CoP19

Significant progress for wildlife was achieved at the 19th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP19) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which met in Panama City, Panama, in November. Over two weeks, thousands of delegates from 152 parties approved decisions related to nearly 100 documents regarding the implementation and enforcement of the convention and added over 500 species of animals and plants to CITES Appendix I (which largely prohibits international commercial trade) and Appendix II (which regulates trade to prevent species imperilment). Four AWI representatives—D.J. Schubert, Johanna Hamburger, Sue Fisher, and Yvonne Gurira—attended CoP19, working with other NGOs, including over 100 colleagues from the Species Survival Network, an AWI-cofounded global coalition of animal protection and conservation organizations.

mobula ray
Mobula ray - photo by Gudkov Andrey

Species Listing Proposals
Prolonged debates about elephants and rhinos are a regular feature of CITES meetings, demonstrating the stark differences between the utilitarian views of most southern African countries and the protectionist perspectives of other African elephant range states in eastern, central, and western Africa. CoP19 was no different, with multiple species listing proposals and working documents focusing on elephants and rhinos. The outcome of the deliberations was mixed. 

A proposal led by Burkina Faso to restore all African elephants to Appendix I (the populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe are currently listed on Appendix II) failed, but Zimbabwe’s attempt to reduce protections for its elephants was also rejected. For rhinos, Eswatini’s request to liberalize trade in its Appendix II-listed rhinos was defeated, but the parties agreed to downlist Namibia’s rhinos from Appendix I to Appendix II to permit exports of rhino trophies as well as live animals for “in situ” conservation programs (those within the species’ native range).

Unfortunately, an effort led by 10 African countries to ban international commercial trade in the common hippopotamus was defeated due, in part, to the European Union’s opposition—despite evidence of declining populations in many range states and significant trade in hippo parts. Had the 27 members of the European Union merely abstained, the proposal would have been within a single vote of passage.

CoP19 was branded the “reptile CoP” by many, given that 23 of 52 species-listing proposals under consideration involved reptiles. The majority of these sought increased protection for snakes, turtles, geckos, and lizards due to extensive and ongoing international trade in these animals for meat and/or pets that, in some cases, is causing precipitous declines in wild populations. 

There was grave concern prior to the meeting that several of the reptile proposals, particularly those for turtles, would prove controversial and face defeat if the European Union opposed the listing. By meeting’s end, however, EU efforts to defeat several such proposals had failed and virtually all were adopted—many by consensus.

Black river turtles
Black river turtles - photo by ondrejprosicky

India, Mauritania, and Senegal secured Appendix II protections for the Jeypore ground gecko and the helmeted gecko, respectively. Mexico obtained an Appendix II listing for all horned lizards (including the desert horned lizard, which the United States also sought to protect). An EU/Vietnam proposal to list the Chinese water dragon on Appendix II was approved, while Australia obtained an Appendix I listing for its pygmy bluetongue lizard—a coveted species in the international pet trade.

All 12 turtle listing proposals were approved, many by consensus. The Leith’s softshell turtle (proposed by India), red-crowned roof turtle (India), and Indochinese box turtle (European Union and Vietnam) were all uplisted from Appendix II to Appendix I due to unsustainable removals from the wild for pets, meat, and/or traditional medicines, resulting in population declines of more than 90 percent for the softshell and box turtles. Two species of matamata turtle were added to Appendix II at the request of Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Peru, while the United States secured an Appendix II listing for common and alligator snapping turtles (traded for their meat) and five species of broad-headed map turtles (traded as pets). Mexico and El Salvador secured the same protections for narrow-bridged, giant, and Mexican musk turtles and—with Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, and the United States—obtained an Appendix I listing for two mud turtle species and Appendix II listings for all remaining mud turtle species not already listed on Appendix I. Several of these same countries obtained an Appendix II listing for neotropical wood turtles, while the United States obtained an Appendix II listing for all softshell turtles not already on Appendix I.

The most controversial amphibian proposal was one to list 153 species of glass frogs on Appendix II due to substantial demand from the pet trade. This proposal had failed at the last CoP. Despite the European Union’s initial opposition, it did not block consensus, and this time the proposal passed. The Lao warty newt, as proposed by the European Union, was listed on Appendix II (with no commercial exports of wild-caught specimens allowed). The European Union, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama obtained the same protections for the Lemur leaf frog.

Efforts to list commercially valuable marine species on CITES appendices are always controversial. While initially rejected, many marine species proposals have since been approved, providing protections to several shark and ray species (e.g., great white, basking, whale, mako, and some hammerhead sharks; manta and mobula rays) and other marine fish and invertebrates (e.g., humphead wrasse, nautilus). Often, such protections were not approved until the species experienced substantial population declines, with some shark populations declining 80 to nearly 99 percent before listing.

At CoP19, the parties clearly understood the urgent need to protect marine species from overexploitation. Over 50 species of requiem sharks—including blue, tiger, and bull sharks—were included on Appendix II at the request of 15 countries, with 75 percent of parties voting in favor. Brazil, Panama, the European Union, and others achieved Appendix II protections by consensus for several species of hammerhead sharks that were not previously listed, including the bonnethead, which has lost up to 79 percent of its population over the past 36 years. Brazil secured the same protections for several species of freshwater stingrays that are exploited for the international aquarium/pet trade, while Israel joined Kenya, Panama, and Senegal in obtaining an Appendix II listing for 37 guitarfish species, with nearly 88 percent of CITES parties supporting the proposal. The European Union, Seychelles, and the United States secured an Appendix II listing for the Thelenota genus of sea cucumbers, extensively traded for food and purported medicinal benefits and as a symbol of status and wealth. Unfortunately, Brazil’s request for an Appendix I listing for the zebra pleco—a marine fish in demand in the pet trade—failed.

Working Documents
In addition to species proposals, CITES parties evaluated over 90 working documents pertaining to the interpretation and implementation of the convention. Some highlights on issues of particular interest to AWI include the following:

There was considerable debate over the representation of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) whose livelihoods are connected to wildlife trade. The debate centered on whether special mechanisms should be created to afford these communities an enhanced role in the CITES decision-making process. Most parties and observers, including AWI, support giving voice to all relevant stakeholders—both as accredited observer organizations and through dialogue with their own governments. But decisions within a global convention can only be made by nation-states that are parties to the agreement. 

In the end, the parties opposed creating a permanent committee or subcommittee for representatives of rural communities, but created two working groups to continue deliberations on integrating livelihoods and engaging IPLCs into CITES decision-making. They strongly rejected proposals intended to stymie efforts to list species—one to require a predetermination that international trade is the key driver of a species’ decline; another to add food security, livelihoods, and socioeconomics to the listing criteria (rather than considerations to take into account after listing); and another to amend voting rules to give more weight to votes cast by species’ range states (for example, giving Zimbabwe a bigger share of the vote than the United States on proposals to open trade in elephant products).

The parties agreed to revise and strengthen previous decisions on totoaba, providing direction, primarily to Mexico, to increase its efforts to combat both illegal fishing in the Upper Gulf of California and trafficking in totoaba swim bladders to save the vaquita—the most critically endangered cetacean on the planet, with 10 or so individuals remaining. At the 75th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, the day before CoP19 began, the committee directed Mexico to prepare a compliance action plan for totoaba by February 28, 2023. Should Mexico miss the deadline or the plan prove deficient, the secretariat will recommend that all parties suspend trade with Mexico until an adequate plan is provided. 

Thanks to the United Kingdom, progress was made at CoP19 to increase protections for pangolins, the world’s most trafficked mammal. This should strengthen enforcement efforts, improve the control and management of pangolin stockpiles, lead to the closure of domestic pangolin markets that contribute to illegal trade, and give the Standing Committee an opportunity to provide specific recommendations to pangolin range, transit, and consumer states. 

Only limited progress was made in addressing ongoing trade-related threats to elephants, including demand for live elephants for display. Efforts to clarify a prohibition on the export of wild-caught African elephants to “ex situ” facilities (i.e., facilities outside the natural and native range) approved at CoP18 were blocked by parties that, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, continue to believe that there remains a conservation value to keeping elephants in captivity. As a temporary reprieve, the parties agreed to a moratorium on exports to ex situ destinations (except under exceptional circumstances) pending the outcome of a meeting of African elephant range states and experts to discuss the matter. 

For working documents that directly or indirectly touch on animal welfare issues, the results were mixed, with minimal progress made on addressing concerns associated with the fate of confiscated animals. There was limited progress on clarifying the registration process for facilities breeding Appendix I species for commercial trade, and deliberations on this will continue during the intersessional period before CoP20 in 2025. For live animals in transport, the parties agreed to request that the International Air Transport Association provide its live animal transport guidelines at no charge to the parties and encourage parties to apply those standards to domestic transport of specimens in trade. 

The parties established an intersessional working group to consider the role of CITES in reducing the risk that international wildlife trade will trigger future pandemics or other public health emergencies and directed the secretariat to review actions on this issue by other international bodies. AWI will seek to serve on this working group, as well as another to develop strategies for determining which species are most at risk of extinction due (at least in part) to international wildlife trade—in hopes that an early warning process can be developed to enable earlier intervention. 

Finally, progress was made on the production of annual illegal trade reports; bolstering wildlife crime law enforcement in West and Central Africa; fighting online wildlife crime; reducing demand for imperiled wildlife; addressing the role of domestic wildlife markets in contributing to illegal international trade; specimen identification tools; how exporting/importing countries make “non-detriment findings” (to determine whether a species is being harmed by the trade); regulating trade in specimens produced via biotechnology; addressing illegal trade in cheetahs; and conservation and trade regulation of West African vultures, amphibians, marine turtles, sharks and rays, seahorses, saiga antelopes, freshwater turtles and tortoises, marine ornamental fish, and several big cat species, including jaguars, tigers, and African lions.

Cheetahs - photo by Gudkov Andrey

Side Events
AWI was pleased to host two side events designed to educate delegates on matters relevant to CITES. The first, “Combating the Global Snaring Crisis: Insights and Innovations from Around the World,” featured presentations by experts from South Africa’s KaiNav Conservation Foundation, Wildlife Trust of India, and WWF-Singapore, who discussed their work with local communities and government officials to remove illegal snares and traps, rescue trapped animals, prosecute offenders, and educate communities about the harm these devices cause. They noted that illegal hunting and trapping pose a major threat to global wildlife populations and that among the most common hunting tools in these regions are homemade snares made from widely available materials such as rope, nylon, or thin wire cables. Such snares are inexpensive to make, easy to set and conceal, and devastatingly effective in catching wildlife, causing horrific injuries and, when not checked regularly, resulting in painful and prolonged deaths. In Southeast Asia alone, more than 700 mammal species, including many listed under CITES, are regularly caught in snares, resulting in both a conservation and welfare crisis. The event offered an excellent opportunity for delegates to learn how to implement snare-reduction initiatives. Several countries have contacted Wildlife Trust of India since the event seeking to use their mobile app to collect data on snares. 

AWI also hosted “There is Still Hope: CITES’ Role in Stopping Illegal Fishing and Saving the Vaquita” in collaboration with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Environmental Investigation Agency, and Natural Resources Defense Council. This event, which featured one of the world’s leading scientific authorities on the vaquita, emphasized the need for increased enforcement in the Upper Gulf of California to stop illegal fishing with gillnets. In addition to documenting the ongoing failures of Mexico to enforce its own fishing laws and rules, participants learned about important initiatives underway in Upper Gulf communities to reduce illegal fishing by promoting fishing methods that don’t harm the vaquita.

Overall, CoP19 resulted in significant conservation benefits to a host of species. In some cases, the benefits of listing will be delayed, as the proponents agreed to 12- or even 18-month delays concerning when protections will come into effect. Unfortunately, this provides time for unscrupulous industries, hunters, collectors, and traders to double down on their efforts to capture and kill these species. 

While achieving a CITES Appendix I or Appendix II listing is a considerable accomplishment, such listings are only effective if all parties properly abide by the convention. Once all the new listings are in effect, it will be up to the secretariat, parties, and observers to ensure that they are implemented and enforced and that parties who violate the convention are held accountable. In other words, the work in realizing the conservation gains achieved at CoP19 has just begun.

For the critical technical issues that influence the operational success of CITES, the parties and observers—including AWI—will continue to advance reforms intersessionally, including at upcoming meetings of the Standing, Animals, and Plants committees. Only through such painstaking—and often infuriatingly slow—work will the true strength of CITES in regulating international wildlife trade and combatting illegal trade be realized. 

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