CITES hosts largest-ever meet, takes key wildlife trade decisions

11 October 2016

Governments from around the world have agreed to a host of new protections and sustainable management strategies for trade in endangered plants and animals, following an 11-day gathering held in Johannesburg, South Africa.   

The gathering, known as the Seventeenth Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), was held from 24 September-4 October. During the meet, trade bans were agreed for all eight species of pangolin, a scaly ant-eater that holds the unenviable title as the world’s most illegally trafficked mammal, as well as for the African grey parrot, the psychedelic rock gecko, and the turquoise dwarf gecko, among others.

Tighter trade controls were also agreed for several marine species and for certain high-value rosewood species.

 “The most critical meeting in the 43-year history of CITES has delivered for the world’s wildlife. COP17 is a game changer for the planet’s most vulnerable wild animals and plants,” said John E. Scanlon, CITES Secretary-General, in a press release last week after the meeting closed.

With more than 3500 participants, including representatives from 152 governments, CITES COP17 has been billed as the largest dedicated wildlife trade meeting yet.

Wildlife trade management has rocketed up the global agenda as biodiversity continues declining due to pollution, ecosystem degradation, population growth, and other factors, while international trafficking has fuelled concerns around the future of iconic species such as the African elephant.

At the same time, the restoration and sustainable use of biodiversity is widely recognised as an essential contributor to sustainable development opportunities, raising pressure on CITES to strike the right balance in its regulatory efforts. Although CITES is geared towards sustainable legal trade, parties have responded to increased wildlife trafficking in certain species with targeted studies and actions.

In force since 1975, CITES regulates a multi-billion dollar trade industry in 35,000 species of animals and plants. It does so using an “appendix” classification system to determine trade levels, which are based on the species’ vulnerability.

Species listed on Appendix I qualify as endangered and international trade is generally prohibited, barring exceptional circumstances. Species on Appendix II raise sufficient conservation concerns for trade to be closely regulated, while those on Appendix III are listed by individual parties when international cooperation could help support domestic efforts for sustainable management.

In total, the Johannesburg meet considered 62 listing proposals affecting close to 500 animal and plant species. COP17 also agreed on demand reduction strategies to combat illegal wildlife trade; actions to tackle emerging wildlife cybercrime; decisions to mitigate the risks of corruption in the trade chain; a dedicated task force to fight illegal timber trade; new efforts on traceability and identification of CITES-listed species; as well as capacity-building and a process to engage rural communities effectively.

Some sources said that a raft of relevant measures adopted at COP17 to address black market wildlife trade would significantly help in closing the net around poachers and illegal loggers.

The future of elephants

For many stakeholders, a major focus of the meet centred on competing proposals to amend listings of African elephants, which reflected disagreements on how to stamp out ferocious poaching activities. After much substantive discussions, the proposals were eventually rejected and the African elephant listings ultimately left unchanged.

All African elephant populations are included in Appendix I, except those in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, which are in Appendix II. However, annotations to the latter listings specify that all elephant ivory is on Appendix I, thereby prohibiting any international trade.

Heading into the COP Namibia and Zimbabwe had proposed changing this annotation for their elephant populations so both the ivory and the elephant would be on Appendix II. This would have allowed for limited international commercial trade in ivory, subject to permits, with proponents arguing the move could benefit rural communities and spur conservation efforts.

In contrast, several African and Asian nations supported uplisting all African elephants to Appendix I, suggesting this would help ensure the future of the species. (See Bridges Weekly, 14 July 2016)

COP17 also rejected developing further a decision-making mechanism (DMM) for a process of legal trade in ivory, with opponents suggesting it would send the wrong signal given the current poaching crisis. The move was met with frustration by certain African elephant range states, who had agreed in 2007 to a nine-year moratorium on requests for international ivory trade exceptions, in return for establishing a DMM. 

CITES parties did adopt a non-binding recommendation on closing domestic markets for commercial ivory trade where it contributes to poaching or illegal trade – a move welcomed as a significant breakthrough by several conservation groups.

“Countries have said loud and clear that legal markets should no longer provide a cover for massive illegal trade driving the decline of Africa’s elephants,” said Ginette Hemley, head of WWF’s CITES delegation, in a press release last week. 

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that African elephant populations have declined by 93,000-110,000 in the last decade, driven primarily by poaching. The organisation suggested some 415,000 African elephants remain in the wild. Factors that help escalate illegal elephant killing include poverty levels, law enforcement capacities, and demand in major ivory-consuming nations, according to CITES’ programme for Monitoring the Illegal Killings of Elephants (MIKE).

Debates rage among the conservation community on how to mitigate rapid elephant population decline, including through trade policy. While some stakeholders support limited legal trade to devalue black market activities and generate local income through sustainable use strategies, others favour closing all markets and ramping up criminal penalties. 

The digital age

COP17 saw parties tackle issues linked to rapid technological advances in the global economy, including threats posed by the digitalisation of wildlife trafficking. According to wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC, at one point in 2012 some 4000 new advertisements for illegal wildlife products were appearing monthly on Chinese language websites.

In a notable first, parties agreed for the CITES Secretariat to develop guidelines for combatting wildlife cybercrime more effectively. Parties will also hold a workshop on the subject involving key producer and consumer countries, as well as nations with large internet companies.

In another innovation, parties agreed to establish a working group on traceability, following increased interest in using technological developments to help strengthen the implementation of CITES-listed species. Key issues to address in this area include complementarity between different tracing systems and work towards generating standardised data.  (See BioRes, 20 January 2016)

Precious forests

The Johannesburg meet adopted new provisions that will subject about 80 percent of trade in precious rosewoods to tighter controls and increased transparency measures, a move that in effect brings almost an entire highly-lucrative industry under CITES’ remit. Rosewoods are particularly valued in China and other nations for making furniture with a deep red glow.  

This includes agreement to place all 300 types of Dalbergia rosewoods on Appendix II, except those already included on Appendix I.  The African rosewood, dubbed the “kosso tree,” was also uplisted to Appendix II along with all parts and derivatives.

Parties also agreed to improve enforcement measures of international rosewood trade from Madagascar, with new precautionary export quotas. Meanwhile, source, transit and destination parties will develop action plans to manage timber stockpiles from the country.

Madagascar has faced continued challenges with illegal logging over the past decade, with trade in the precious wood feeding into an unstable political environment and jeopardising broader conservation efforts. 

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that rosewood species account for about a third of all illegal wildlife trade seizures by value in the last decade, dwarfing seizures of elephant ivory, pangolins, rhino horn, lions, and tigers.

Marine challenges

Parties agreed to a series of boosted protections for marine species last week, placing the silky shark, thresher shark, devil ray, and Clarion angelfish on Appendix II and adopting other related decisions. The move follows the listing of several commercially valuable shark species at the last CITES COP.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), commercial trade flows of various shark and ray commodities – including import, export, and re-export – were worth up to US$1 billion annually between 2000-2011. The listings have set CITES parties new challenges for implementing controls in highly traded species that are often processed as part of the fish food supply chain.

ICTSD reporting; “Summary of the Seventeenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora,” EARTH NEGOTIATIONS BULLETIN, 8 October 2016; “Furniture that destroys forests: crackdown on ‘rampant’ trade in rosewood,” THE GUARDIAN, 10 October 2016. 

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