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As thousands of delegates gather in Geneva today for the two-week 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP18) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Sheree Bega looks at some of the major issues, whether the international convention is working and why it matters.

What is CITES?

183 Parties are signatories to CITES, which is described as the key international agreement regulating the international trade in wild plants and animals - around 36 000 species.

Species are listed in three appendices, ranked according to the degree of protection they require:

Appendix I

Species at risk of extinction - trade is allowed only under exceptional circumstances.

Appendix II

Species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but for which trade might affect their survival.

Appendix III

Species protected in at least one country, which has requested other Cites parties for help in controlling trade. similar proposal three years ago, unsuccessful.

What will be covered at this year's CoP18?

The agenda spans a record 107 agenda items and 56 proposals, which call for increasing or decreasing controls on international trade in wildlife and wildlife products. 

The fate of around 550 species may be affected, including African elephants, rhinos, giraffes, saiga antelope, jaguars, a variety of amphibians and reptiles, sharks, sea cucumbers, Grandidier’s baobab and rosewood trees.

"CITES sets the rules for international trade in wild fauna and flora,” its secretary general Ivonne Higuero stated recently. “It's a powerful tool for ensuring sustainability and responding to the rapid loss of biodiversity - often called the sixth extinction crisis - by preventing and reversing declines in wildlife populations."

Twenty listing proposals, it says, are inspired by concern over the growing appetite of the exotic pet trade for charismatic amphibians and reptiles.

"The unregulated international pet trade is increasingly seen as a threat to colorful and exotic lizards, geckos, iguanas, snakes, turtles, tortoises, frogs, newts and spiders.

The booming trade in these small and easy-to-smuggle species is driven in part by social media and e-commerce.

CITES has already listed many birds, mammals and other species that are poached for the pet trade, but a large number of reptiles and amphibians are not CITES-listed, and trade in these species is not regulated, it says.

In May, a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimated that one million species face the risk of extinction. It documented how the decline in nature is "unprecedented" and how species extinction rates are "accelerating".

One of the main direct drivers of species decline is the direct over-exploitation of living organisms, including unsustainable or illegal hunting, fishing and logging, says CITES.

The multibillion-dollar illegal international trade in wildlife "threatens the survival of many wild animals and plants while undermining national economies and the livelihoods of people who rely on the sustainable use of wildlife," it says. 

"The growing involvement of organised crime groups is increasing the complexity of enforcement investigations and the risks faced by enforcement officers such as park rangers."

The conference will address wildlife crime linked to the Internet, the use of forensic applications and measures dealing with corruption.

"With unsustainable and illegal trade driving declines in many wild species and the collective under-performance of governments, business and civil society to halt the global decline in biodiversity, CITES has a key role to play in the next decade," writes Dr Jon Paul Rodríguez, the chairperson of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission and Dr. Thomas Brooks, the chief scientist at the IUCN, in a IUCN/TRAFFIC analyses of the CoP18 proposals.

"Wise, evidence-based decisions that are true to the Convention’s aim of ensuring that international trade is not a threat to wild species, will be needed alongside the contributions of other sectors to deliver a post-2020 decade that halts species extinctions, slows declines and promotes recovery."

Giraffe

For the first time, CITES delegates will consider the protection of giraffes.  Numbers of the world's tallest mammal have plunged by 40% over the past 30 years in what has been described as a "silent extinction". 

Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, civil unrest, climate change and illegal hunting are to blame, say experts.

The Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Senegal propose that the giraffe be listed on Appendix II as a precautionary measure to help arrest the ongoing decline.

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“It is important that giraffes are listed by CITES because currently we can’t say for certain how much of their huge population decline is due to trade," says Matt Collis, the director of international policy for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.  

"We do know it's a significant factor though as the only country that currently collects data on trade in giraffes, the US, has reported almost 40 000 giraffe items traded in a decade, from 2006 to 2015." 

Listing giraffe on Appendix II, he says, is vital to regulate trade and prevent any illegal and unsustainable trade.

But an assessment by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, and the IUCN states that regulation of international trade won't address the principal threats facing this species.

"There is little evidence to suggest the poaching of giraffe is driven by international trade, rather it is for local/domestic use," the assessment reads.

"The main populations subject to legal offtake for international trade are in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, where the hunting of giraffe, mainly for trophies, and export is permitted."

In Namibia and SA, populations are generally increasing and declines in Zimbabwe have not been attributed to international trade.

Dr Julian Fennessy, the co-chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission's giraffe and okapi specialist group, agrees. 

"While legal trade in giraffe does occur from populations in Southern Africa, all of these populations are increasing as a whole and no link to trade resulting in the overall decline of giraffe in the wild," he says.

"As stated by the IUCN/TRAFFIC assessment, there is no clear link that uplisting of giraffe will have an impact on the decline of giraffe across the continent.

"To the contrary, some have indicated this uplisting might result in lack of support for giraffe in the wild as the assumption is they are now saved by their listing.

"If more efforts were undertaken on the ground in East and Central Africa then giraffe future would be brighter," he says.

Rhino

More than 8000 rhinos have been slaughtered for their horns in the past decade.

The Kingdom of Eswatini has proposed selling an existing stock of 330kg of rhino horn to retailers in the Far East and 20kg per year from non-lethal harvesting, to fund its conservation efforts. 

The country argues that  "any benefits that may have been realised from prohibiting trade in the past have been totally undermined by the surge in the black market monopoly entrenched by the (international) ban" on the trade in rhino horn. A similar proposal from Eswatini was rejected at CoP17. 

Namibia, meanwhile, wants the green light to sell hunting trophies and live animals "to appropriate and acceptable destinations".

Both proposals are unlikely to succeed, believes Ed Couzens, associate professor of environmental law at the University of Sydney Law School and member of the Environmental Law Association of South Africa, given "current uncertainties over increased poaching". 

Both countries, he says, "probably just want to keep their views on the agenda". 

Dr Jo Shaw, senior manager of the wildlife programme at WWF South Africa, sees CoP18 as a critical opportunity for action for rhinos.

"Not in terms of allowing or disallowing legal trade at this point in time but by enacting compliance proceedings to identify Vietnam's central role in illegal rhino horn trade, as well as their role in other forms of wildlife contraband such as ivory, pangolins, helmeted hornbill, tigers, sea turtles and rosewood.

"It's also an opportunity to galvanise political action and the will to stop those involved," she says.

SA has submitted a proposal to double its trophy hunting quota for critically endangered black rhinos to around nine a year.

The biological status of the species has improved since the original quota was introduced, says Albi Modise, of the department of environment, forestry and fisheries.

“The objectives of this cautious increase in the quota are: to expand the species’ range in South Africa through incentivising the keeping and protection of viable populations of black rhinos and to increase/maintain productive population growth rates through the offtake of surplus males.”

But Elly Pepper, of the Natural Resources Defence Council, says by most estimates the black rhino is only a decade away from extinction.

"Other species aren’t faring much better due to continued demand for rhino horn, which is used in traditional medicines in some Asian countries," she writes. "Allowing a legal international trade in rhino horn will open a parallel illegal market ... These proposals would also undermine years of demand reduction efforts, increase the burden on law enforcement, and challenge domestic laws restricting rhino horn trade in consumer countries.

"They would, in short, be a disaster for rhinos at a time when they’re already on the brink of extinction."

African elephant

As always, debates on the trade in ivory are likely to dominate the agenda. Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe have submitted a proposal that seeks to re-open international commercial legal trade in registered ivory sourced from their own elephant populations, as well as from South Africa’s populations.

They argue that southern Africa is home to the largest population of the African elephant in the world and those in the four countries are secure and expanding. Funds from such sales would be ploughed into conservation, among others.

Analysis by the IUCN and TRAFFIC finds that in Namibia, Zimbawe and Botswana's support statement, details on precautionary measures are lacking and the document does not provide details on how the proposed trade would be assessed for sustainability and controlled.

"Parties would need to be satisfied that Botswana, Namibia, SA and Zimbabwe are implementing the requirements of the Convention and that the appropriate enforcement controls and compliance with the requirements of the Convention are in place. Insufficient details of such measures is provided ... to determine whether or not this would be the case."

Zambia has submitted a proposal to decrease protection of its population under Cites from Appendix 1 to Appendix II, to permit sales of registered ivory stocks to CITES-approved buyers as well as some specified non-ivory trade.

A group of 10 countries, including Gabon, Burkino Faso, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Sudan, propose that elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, SA and Zimbabwe be moved from Appendix II to Appendix 1.

Couzens says there's no chance of this proposal being successful "although it is likely to achieve a much closer vote (than the other proposals), which will be soundly rejected, given that the Southern African states will muster significant opposition".

"Poaching and ivory trafficking continue to pose a very real threat to elephant populations in southern Africa, despite the current wave of propaganda from pro-trade factions," says the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). "Strong measures are needed at CoP18 to ensure the situation does not spiral out of control."

Elephants need the highest protection from trade, to prevent legal sales providing a smokescreen for further poaching and illegal trade, says Ifaw's Collis.

"It's vital that we provide the necessary resources to key countries to protect elephant populations on the ground, and improve enforcement capability.”

CITES says African elephant populations have fallen from an estimated 12 million a century ago to around 400 000 today.

Earlier this year, Cites noted how an updated assessment of its Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants programme confirmed that "poaching continues to threaten the long-term survival of the African elephant".

WWF is calling for CITES to prioritise action with regard to countries that, either through lack of capacity or lack of political ill, are implicated in the illegal ivory trade. "These include Burundi, Gabon, Togo, Nigeria, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, United Arab Emirates, Lao PDR, Malaysia and - above all - Vietnam."

Pangolin

CoP18 will explore a range of measures to strengthen conservation for  pangolins, the world's most trafficked mammal, after all eight species of pangolins were uplisted to Appendix 1 at CoP17.

The EIA says the transnational illegal trade in their scales and body parts continues on an "industrial scale" for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

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Professor Ray Jansen, the chairperson of the African Pangolin Working Group, says the uplisting was a "great victory" for Africa's four pangolin species, but the practical reality is that it's difficult to enforce the ruling.

"The problems stem around educating law enforcement to recognise pangolin scales or even to locate them in large shipping containers leaving the ports and harbours of Africa for the east.

"Manpower, capacity and knowledge are huge stumbling blocks to overcome and the vast majority of shipments are still going undetected."

By August this year, 68.5 tons of pangolins scales were intercepted that left the shores of Africa. This equates to well over 100 000 African pangolins in less than nine months. Yet, this remains the minority, Jansen believes.

"The large portion remains smuggled through various clandestine networks. Many African countries that form part of the range states for African pangolin species have not taken the pangolin crisis seriously enough and do not have the capacity to implement laws governing the poaching and trade in pangolin body parts."

The EIA says numerous parties are linked to high volumes of illegal pangolin trade, including China, Nigeria, Thailand and Vietnam.

"We are pressing CITES Parties to call for strengthened enforcement efforts in these countries to disrupt pangolin trafficking networks, including the use of anti-money laundering laws.

"China’s domestic market for traditional Chinese medicine products containing pangolin scale is a major driver of the trade and we are proposing that the Secretariat adopts decisions urging China to take steps towards closing its domestic pangolin market."

Mako sharks, guitarfishes and wedgefishes

The global fin trade is pushing shortfin mako sharks, giant guitarfishes and wedgefishes to extinction.

"I think that the really contentious proposals will be the three concerning mako sharks, guitarfishes and wedgefishes, all of which have been proposed for initial listings on Appendix II," says Couzens.

"In recent years, any proposals for increased protection of sharks, and shark-related, species have been opposed firmly by numerous Asian states. These listings will be achieved, but it will be interesting to see what compromises are made."

Sharks and rays are declining rapidly because of demand for their fins or meat, and in some cases both, says Ifaw's Collis.

"Following the successful Appendix II listing of a substantial number of shark species at the last two CoPs, a record number of countries are now proposing the listing of a further 18 of the most threatened of these species to ensure trade is manageable and sustainable. This includes both the longfin and shortfin mako shark, which are both endangered.

“Previous successful listing of shark and ray species means there is building momentum for CITES to provide protections and inspire fisheries management where currently trade is unregulated.”

Wooly mammoths

In a first for CITES, a proposal from Israel calls for the listing a long-extinct species: adding the woolly mammoth to Appendix II, citing the so-called “look-alike provision” aimed at preventing the “laundering” or mislabeling of elephant ivory as mammoth ivory.

"Israel is making the legal argument that nothing in the Convention prevents an extinct species from being listed," explains Couzens.

"The proposal is unlikely to be adopted as states are likely to be cautious about expanding CITES' limits and the Southern African states will argue that modern techniques for identifying ivory are so sophisticated that the potential for 'laundering' of 'look-alike' ivory is minimal."  

Vietnam’s "out-of-control" illegal wildlife trade

Vietnam, says the EIA, has seen the rapid proliferation of organised trafficking networks driving illegal wildlife trade globally – but the response of its government has been inadequate and disproportionate to the scale of trafficking involving Vietnamese criminal groups.

"The country has been implicated in more than 600 seizures linked to illegal trade, including a minimum of 105.72 tons of ivory, equivalent to an estimated 15 779 dead elephants; 1.69 tons of horn estimated to be sourced from up to 610 rhinos; the skins, bones and other products sourced from a minimum of 228 tigers; and the bodies and scales of 65 510 pangolins.

"We urge CITES Parties to call for the initiation of compliance proceedings to encourage Vietnam to take urgent action to address its key role in illegal wildlife trade."

WWF says demand for illegal wildlife products in Asia is not only driving wildlife population declines in the region, but across the globe.

"Tigers, elephants and rhino will be some of the species to take the spotlight in relation to the illegal trade in Asia at CoP18. Vietnam is now the largest destination for illegal shipments of elephant ivory and rhino horn, according to independent analyses presented to the meeting by TRAFFIC, the IUCN and the EIA.

These wildlife products are either consumed in country, or may be shipped on to other destinations in Asia."

Vietnam's neighbours Lao PDR, Thailand and China are "key countries of concern", particularly when it comes to tiger farms, says WWF.

"For now, China has banned all trade in tiger parts, but the continued existence of state-run tiger farms, with thousands of captive tigers creates political pressure and economic incentive for trade from captive tigers to be allowed in the future.

"WWF believes that such trade would be impossible to control and could put the world’s remaining wild tigers at risk. Meanwhile, there is already evidence of tiger parts from farms leaking into markets in the region which by escalating demand, puts the remaining 3,900 wild tigers at increased risk from poaching."

"CITES agreed in 2007 that tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and products,” said Heather Sohl, its tiger trade expert.

“Yet over 12 years later, we have more tigers, in more tiger farms, in more countries, and more captive tigers and their parts and products entering the illegal trade. It's high time the governments of the world stood by their commitments to tigers and hold the defaulting countries accountable.”

Does CITES work?

CITES is often portrayed as simply policing whether or not wildlife products can be legally traded across international boundaries," says WWF-SA's Shaw. "However, this fails to take into account the breadth of processes associated with the Convention. Within the agreement and specifically at the CoP meetings, a number of mechanisms exist to identify key countries involved in illicit trade in certain species and interrogate the efforts they are making to stop it."

Shruti Suresh, senior wildlife campaigner at the EIA, says CITES is currently the primary internationally binding treaty dedicated to addressing trade in animal and plant species of concern.

"As human actions threaten more species with extinction than ever before, the international community must set aside political and commercial interests that tend to enable unsustainable trade under the CITES framework."

Couzens says it is more important than ever to recognise that CITES needs to be seen as playing a role within the limits of its mandate, and as part of an overall regime made up of around 3 000 muti-lateral and bilateral inter-state treaties, of all of global, regional and local scope, relevant to the conservation and protection of wildlife.

"It is increasingly evident, and increasingly recognised, that effective conservation requires protection of ecosystems and the relationships of species within their habitats, rather than the protection of single species."

CITES, he says, is an important and highly visible instrument. "Many states derive their legal authority for trading wildlife from national implementation of the convention and (in the face of increasing illegal trade in wildlife) I think that most states will agree that CITES should be improved (rather than ignored or even scrapped)."

In a sense, he says, there's an escalating "arms race" between enforcement authorities and criminals.  The former is embracing new technologies for preventing poaching and detecting illegal shipments while the latter is finding new ways to smuggle successfully and evade detection.

"This is complicated by the ambivalence which many states have over whether legal trade should or should not be permitted. This means that mixed signals are being sent."

Peter Lanius, co-founder and director of Nature Needs More, argues too little attention is paid to the "massive flaws and loopholes" in the legal trade system that enable wildlife traffickers.

"CITES has been in place since 1975 but has not been modernised and still uses a completely outdated permit system.

"The system that monitors the trade in endangered species under CITES is stand-alone, mostly paper-based, and doesn’t integrate with customs. It is obsolete, couldn’t pass the most basic audit, and is not fit-for- purpose."

This legal trade monitoring system is "so out-of-date that it is enabling the illegal trade to flourish" as traffickers launder illegal product into the legal marketplace.

Lanius says the estimated scale of the illegal trade in endangered wildlife and plants is estimated to be as much as $258bn annually.

"But CITES and national enforcement of its rules and regulations is chronically underfunded compared to the massive scale of the legal trade estimated at $320bn annually."

"CITES meets every 2.5 – 3 years ... Wildlife cannot wait another thee years using this outdated and antiquated system. It is literally being traded into extinction and we ask for immediate political will to study moving to the reverse listing system, getting industry to contribute to the cost of regulating the trade and implementing a modern, electronic permit system, which is available."

Andrea Crosta, of the Elephant Action League, says far more needs to be done to tackle wildlife syndicates. "If we continue to put all our resources in anti-poaching and awareness campaigns, without an equal amount of resources for intelligence and investigation on the international illegal supply chains, there's absolutely no chance to win this war. We are just delaying the inevitable and wasting millions of dollars."

The Saturday Star