Wildlife trade conference ends with progress on key issues but others still unresolved
Geneva, Switzerland, 28th August 2019—Representatives from more than 170 governments worldwide meeting for the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) ended almost two weeks of intense and occasionally heated debate over key issues related to the trade in wild animal and plant species.
Overall, the mood of delegates leaving the meeting was generally positive, with key progress made on a number of issues, although the meeting once again exposed the deep divisions within African nations regarding trade in their iconic wildlife.
A key outcome from the meeting was the steps put in place to ensure wildlife trade issues are reflected when world governments formulate a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and Strategic Plan to reverse the decline in nature during the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting set to take place in October in China. In particular the benefits that derive from legal and sustainable and trade and the negative impacts of unsustainable and often illegal exploitation and CITES’s role in balancing these factors. The meeting also included development of policy around conservation and livelihoods, while also relevant were moves to undertake a comprehensive review of the Convention in order to enhance its impact and effectiveness.
The importance of CITES has never been more critical: in May this year, a landmark new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) provided overwhelming evidence that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. The report demonstrated that the second biggest driver of negative impacts on nature, after changes in land and sea use, is the direct exploitation of animal and plant species, including harvesting, hunting, fishing and logging.
Delegates considered a number of species listing proposals, whereby countries propose individual species or groups of species to be included in one of the Convention’s appendices—an Appendix I listing effectively prohibits international commercial trade in wild specimens, and Appendix II means it is allowed but regulated using a system of permits.
Among those supported were several proposals to list marine species—mako sharks, guitarfishes, wedgefishes and sea cucumbers within the Convention. Prior to the successful listing of all these species, was a debate about the merits of managing trade in marine species through regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) and the role these bodies can play in assisting with CITES provisions for those species that are listed. TRAFFIC pointed out in an intervention the challenges in current CITES regulation of trade in sharks and other marine species, while also acknowledging parallels with the challenges faced when the Convention first listed tree species, but as Parties had demonstrated, such challenges could be adequately met given the will to do so and in cooperation with other organisations.
Proposals relating to two Asian species of otters—the Small Clawed Otter and the Smooth Coated Otter—were both accepted, with Parties voting to uplist them to Appendix I, which effectively prohibits their commercial international trade in wild specimens. Alongside leading to improved enforcement actions for these species, TRAFFIC hopes it will lead to closer oversight of operations purportedly captive breeding these species for trade.
A suite of Sri Lankan reptile species were also listed in the Appendices, although some original proposals were amended during the debate and listed in Appendix II rather than the originally proposed Appendix I, and one proposal was withdrawn. A number of Asian turtle species were uplisted to Appendix I, as was the Indian Star Tortoise, which is popular as a pet and regularly seized in illegal trade from its range states, particularly to Southeast Asia. There were further listings including one snake (the Spider-tailed Horned Viper, recently discovered in Iran), and amendments to a number of timber species including Cedrela spp. and one plant—Aloe ferox, the Bitter Aloe from southern Africa.
Perhaps the most unusual proposal was to list the extinct Woolly Mammoth—because of the similarity of its tusks to those of the African Elephant. After some debate, the proposal was withdrawn by the proponent, Israel, but it was replaced with a decision to carry out a study on the levels of trade in mammoth ivory, including to what degree it masks laundering of elephant ivory into trade.
Elephant ivory was behind three listing proposals relating to the African Elephant—and it was the fractious nature of some of the exchanges that revealed the deep divide between African nations on this issue. In essence it relates to those countries, largely in west and east Africa who are deeply opposed to any resumption of the ivory trade, which they fear will stimulate demand and lead to increased poaching of elephants, and countries of southern Africa, who pay the high costs for protecting their substantial elephant populations, and wish to offset these costs to fund conservation measures through the sale of elephant ivory. The deadlock has lasted for years, with neither side apparently prepared to give way. In the end, all three African Elephant proposals were rejected, meaning the stalemate continues. Similarly proposals to reduce the trade restrictions relating to White Rhinos, put forward by Eswatini and Namibia respectively, were both defeated. Similar arguments from both sides were heard during the ultimately successful debate on whether the Giraffe warranted listing in Appendix II of the Convention.
A new issue on the agenda was the worldwide trade in songbirds, and the detrimental impact on some species caused by over-harvesting. Nowhere is this of more concern than in Southeast Asia, where dozens of species have disappeared across huge parts of their former range. Ahead of the debate on this topic, TRAFFIC released a report into the trade in one of the most popular songsters—the White-rumped Shama—which illustrated the nature of this trade, with some two-thirds of the individuals seized in Southeast Asia between 2008 and 2018 destined for international trade. While concern was expressed that the sheer number of songbird species potentially involved might make this too big an issue to address for CITES Parties, a way forward was established with the meeting agreeing to undertake a scoping study and report the findings at a later meeting of the Convention.
Other issues with significant positive progress included measures to improve protection measures for marine turtles and improved oversight of Tiger trade, including specific attention to monitoring captive Tiger facilities and their relationship to overall dynamics of supply and demand. During the meeting, TRAFFIC released Skin and Bones: Unresolved, a report which found there has been no respite for the heavily hunted tiger, with an estimated average of over 120 individuals seized each year over the past 19 years.
Pangolins, which featured prominently at the last CITES CoP held in South Africa in 2016, when all eight species were up-listed to Appendix I, were also discussed. Despite these protection measures, there are few signs of a let up in the trafficking of pangolins with record hauls of pangolin parts, particularly scales being made in recent months. Delegates agreed to ramp up their collective efforts to protect pangolins.
Measures on implementation of CITES such as traceability of products in trade also received a boost during the meeting, while there was movement on the use of new technology to assist with this process and there was also an examination of the difficult issue of how to manage stockpiles of wildlife products.
Another critical factor, which has received far too little attention in the past but relates to captive breeding operations, was that of legal acquisition findings, the mechanism by which the legal origin of any animals in trade or used as breeding stock, should be determined. This issue was prevalent during the meeting, with TRAFFIC producing two case studies of Southeast Asian parrots and endemic Caribbean reptiles to support this.
Online trade, and in particular that involving cybercrime, was also prominent during the meeting, with a side event held on enforcement issues where TRAFFIC and IFAW presented on the work of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online.
TRAFFIC participated in a number of side events on a range of topics from achieving consumer behaviour change to elephant conservation, determining Non-Detriment Findings for plants, and the African Vulture crisis: the latter held alongside other partners in the Restore Species Partnership. TRAFFIC’s review of current practices used to reduce demand for threatened wildlife species has supported calls for development of formal guidance for CITES Parties implementing such measures that were approved and will now move forward.
During the wrap up session, Costa Rica offered to host CoP19, which will take place in 2022, an offer that was warmly welcomed.