The international trade of animals and plants stands as one of the biggest threats to many endangered species worldwide. Illegal wildlife trade (including illegal logging) is thought to generate up to USD$175bn annually, making it almost as lucrative as drugs-, arms- and people-trafficking. Meanwhile, extensive legal trade of wildlife is also adding to the pressure felt by these species – between 2005 and 2014, around 17.8 million live, wild-sourced animals were traded legally worldwide.The sole global body regulating this trade is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which held its 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) in Johannesburg earlier this month. Several of our partners and advisors attended; they have since spoken to us about landmark decisions and described the work that is still needed to protect endangered species. To understand CITES and the results of CoP17, it is necessary first to examine why CITES exists; what it has achieved; and where it needs to go.
How CITES works
Since its establishment as an international treaty hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme, CITES has been widely regarded as one of the most effective international environmental treaties in existence. Through a permitting system implemented between its 183 member states, the Treaty protects over 35,000 species of plants and animals. For the most part it is the member nations that must enforce CITES regulations in their own countries, although the CITES Standing Committee does have a mechanism to recommend trade suspensions on countries that are persistent offenders.
It is clear, however, that CITES simply cannot force member countries to take necessary action to combat a highly organised criminal system worth tens of billions of dollars. A recent investigation by an international law firm found that most countries in which wildlife trafficking takes place have serious weaknesses in governance, resulting in very few prosecutions. It was brought up at CoP17, for example, that Vietnam has reported only one seizure of rhino horn since the last CoP, and zero prosecutions have taken place around the rhino horn trade. The recent CITES meeting did not implement a recommendation to impose such sanctions on Madagascar, instead giving the country more time to clean up its act. So what CAN it do?
CITES Appendices I and II are the main systems used by the Treaty to determine which species require regulation of the trade in their parts. Appendix I includes species which are both threatened with extinction and are or may be affected by trade. All commercial trade is prohibited by CITES for these species. Appendix II covers species which may become threatened unless trade is strictly regulated. To legally trade Appendix II species, “non-detriment findings” must be presented to show that the trade is sustainable, and necessary permits must be in place. Although a lot of attention is regularly focused on the appendices, CITES also votes on various recommendations, resolutions, action plans, and bans on specific goods which can be equally important. To take an example, at CoP17 the countries voted to implement a ban on international, commercial trade in parts from wild lions, while keeping the species on Appendix II rather than Appendix I.
Results of CoP17
Key decisions from CoP17 included stronger protection for an array of species, including silky and thresher sharks and devil rays; several animals threatened by the exotic pet trade (including African Grey parrots and several reptile species); and all rosewood trees. Despite some debate, CoP17 voted to maintain support for the CITES-led National Ivory Action Plan process; there was a call for the closure of all domestic ivory markets; and members rejected applications from Namibia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland to legally sell stocks of ivory and rhino horn. They also rejected the proposal to transfer several healthy elephant populations in Africa from Appendix II to Appendix I. Another significant success was the up-listing of all eight pangolin species (four Asian, four African) to Appendix I. The move has been broadly welcomed by conservationists including our partner, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, who hopes that this will end the impunity around pangolin trade, making it impossible to hide illegal sales behind legal activity. While it is a step forward, the Appendix I listing of pangolins, like any CITES decision, will only be effective if it is coupled with strong protection on the ground and effective enforcement of the international trade ban.
Drawbacks, and solutions
One of the strongest criticisms of CITES is that many of its member countries lack the strong governance needed to effectively enforce CITES restrictions. However, the Treaty is making steps towards addressing these issues of law enforcement. Many of the Parties donate to a fund which is used by the CITES Secretariat to build capacity and improve law enforcement in developing member countries. Recently, one such fund was used to build capacity across developing countries for sustainable management of CITES-listed sharks and other aquatic species. This year’s CoP has also shown a step forward in this department, as for the first time ever member governments were asked to explicitly incorporate corruption into their policies against wildlife trafficking.
The decisions made by the Parties of CITES are intended to be based on scientific evidence, but the Treaty is often criticised for being open to influence by political or emotional motives. In 2010, for example, the commercially valuable Atlantic Bluefin tuna was denied CITES protection, a decision widely believed to have been influenced by economic self-interest and politics. This works both ways – a proposal at CoP17 to transfer the peregrine falcon from Appendix I to Appendix II was rejected, despite it clearly not meeting the Appendix I listing criteria. In this case it might have been emotional concerns that prevented the science from being followed. Despite this, several decisions were made at CoP17 which decidedly followed scientific evidence rather than emotional or political leanings. For example, the fact that stable African elephant populations were kept on Appendix II was hailed as a victory for science at the Conference.
Some maintain that the focus of CITES on the “classic” approach to wildlife protection – law enforcement and protected areas – is holding back conservation in developing countries. It is argued that moving ownership of species from the state to the community level will encourage sustainable use, particularly in countries lacking in the capacity to enforce top down regulation. Indeed, CITES has rarely produced results for protected populations on its own. On the occasions where CITES protected species have shown significant improvement, it has almost always been part of a combination of efforts such as habitat restoration, captive breeding, community engagement in species and habitat management and law enforcement (examples being several species of crocodilian, the vicuna, the yellow-crested cockatoo and the cape mountain zebra. The greater engagement of local communities in the conservation of CITES-listed species was a major item of discussion at CoP17.
CITES regulations have undeniably played a large role in the protection of species threatened by trade. At CoP17, a study by TRAFFIC was presented which showcased a 96 per cent drop in the amount of legal ivory openly for sale in Bangkok’s markets subsequent to their inclusion in the CITES-led National Ivory Action Plan process. Also announced at this year’s Conference was Laos’ plan to close all its tiger farms, which ties in with the 2007 CITES motion to address the role of farms in the illegal trade. However, the legal measures imposed by CITES are just a first step and the Treaty needs to find a way forward with its member states to better regulate trade – from the communities up.
Incoming Conservation Director for Synchronicity Earth, and ex-chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Dr. Simon Stuart, has voiced his concerns that members of CITES and the public focus heavily on the classification of species into the Appendices, which can draw attention away from the real issues – Are bans or trade regulations being properly enforced? Are they having any effect on the recovery of a species? What are the driving factors behind illegal wildlife trade? How can we include greater local community engagement into the implementation of CITES? The complexities of species conservation mean that one size rarely fits all – the sweeping regulations of CITES may lead to successful change for some countries and species, but cause further exploitation for others. In order for CITES to be effective, it must be adaptive, and have the power to enforce regulations, provide incentives, and promote on-the-ground conservation and community-based work when needed. Although it has not yet reached these goals, CoP17 has given encouragement that CITES, and its parties, are moving in the right direction.