GENEVA, Switzerland, August 28, 2019 (ENS) – Wildlife conservationists are celebrating a cliff-hanger of a win for elephants at the triennial Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, in Geneva where delegates Tuesday voted to limit the controversial trade of wild-caught baby African elephants from Zimbabwe and Botswana to zoos.

Before the CITES vote, African elephants in Zimbabwe and Botswana were legally captured and exported to so-called “appropriate and acceptable” destinations based on the annotation to the Appendix II listing of their elephant populations.

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Baby elephants captured from the wild are kept behind bars for the rest of their lives. (Photo courtesy Humane Society International)

CITES Appendix II lists species that may not now be threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. Appendix I lists species threatened with extinction. Trade in these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.

Since 2012, Zimbabwe has captured more than 100 live baby African elephants in the wild and exported them to zoos in China. The practice has been controversial, drawing the condemnation of animal protection and conservation groups as well as elephant scientists who advise that elephants are complex creatures who suffer both physically and psychologically as a result of captivity.

During the CITES conference, conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall issued a statement of concern to the EU. Goodall’s message followed an open letter signed by a host of stars such as Ricky Gervais, Simon Pegg, Leona Lewis, Dame Judi Dench, Alesha Dixon, Evanna Lynch, Bryan Adams, Virginia McKenna, Thandie Newton, Pamela Anderson, Peter Egan and Jenny Seagrove,  calling on them not to oppose the CITES ban on trade in wild-caught baby African elephants. The letter was co-ordinated by Humane Society International, the Born Free Foundation, the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, World Animal Protection, and David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation.

EU delegates opposed the ban last week at the CITES conference, claiming that it would limit the genetic diversity of elephants in zoos.

But, after emotional backroom negotiations with UK ministers from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, the EU delegates made a momentous U-turn and voted for the baby elephant protection rule.

The European Union presented a series of amendments to last week’s decision, which would allow trade of wild-caught elephants from Zimbabwe and Botswana to zoos only if approved by the CITES Animals Committee, in consultation with the African Elephant Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, an expert group that has publicly stated it does not believe there to be conservation benefits to wild caught elephants being sent to captive facilities.

The amended text was passed by a vote of 87 governments in favor, 29 against and 25 abstaining. The United States opposed both the original and amended proposals.

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Rescued baby elephant at an elephant orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya , Feb. 16, 2013 (Photo by Steve Begin)

The UK’s International Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith said, “I am appalled by the prospect of baby elephants being captured and sent off to foreign countries – and am thrilled this will now stop, thanks to UK leadership.”

“This vote is another example of British officials working hard to influence the EU and international community, as a world leader on environmental issues, to make the right decision for wildlife,” Goldsmith said.

Audrey Delsink, wildlife director at Humane Society International/Africa, said, “Speaking personally as an elephant field biologist I am jubilant that we have secured this victory for all the elephants who will now be spared the ordeal of being ripped away from their families,” said Delsink. “The capture of wild African elephants for export to zoos and other captive facilities is incredibly traumatizing for individual elephants as well as their social groups. Public sentiment is shifting, and people are increasingly outraged at the senseless and cruel practice of snatching baby elephants from the wild to live a life as a zoo exhibit.”

“Countless elephant experts, animal lovers and celebrities from around the world urged countries to end this injustice by affirming the CITES ban, and we are so glad that our collective voices were heard,” Delsink said.

What CITES Delegates Decided

With 183 Parties, CITES regulates international trade in over 35,000 species of plants and animals, their products and derivatives, to ensure their survival in the wild with benefits for the livelihoods of local people and the global environment.

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CITES delegates from 183 countries make their final decisions at the closing plenary, August 28, 2019 (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

Held once every three years, the CITES World Wildlife Conference concludes here today after adopting decisions revising the trade rules for dozens of wildlife species threatened by unsustainable trade linked to overharvesting, overfishing or overhunting. These ranged from commercially valuable fish and trees to charismatic mammals such as giraffes to amphibians and reptiles sold as exotic pets.

The conference decided to add 18 more shark species to Appendix II. They included blacknose and sharpnose guitarfishes, which are highly valued for their fins and considered endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Shortfin and longfin mako sharks, together with white-spotted and other species of wedgefishes, were also listed in Appendix II.

Other marine species addressed by the conference included eels, sea cucumber, queen conch, marine turtles, precious corals, sturgeons and seahorses. Governments also agreed to examine the trade in live ornamental marine fish to assess what role CITES could or should play in regulating this trade.

Tropical timber trees comprise another wildlife market of high commercial value. Responding to high and increasing demand for African teak from western Africa, CITES broadened the need for trade permits to include plywood and other forms of teak.

Malawi’s national tree, the rare Mulanje cedar, and the slow-growing mukula tree (a type of rosewood) of southern and eastern Africa, were also added to Appendix II. All Latin American species of cedar were listed in Appendix II.

The conference amended an earlier Appendix II listing of rosewoods and related tree species to ensure that small finished items, including musical instruments, parts and accessories, could be carried across borders without the need for CITES permits.

Noting that giraffes have declined by 36-40 percent over the past three decades due to habitat loss and other pressures, the conference added the world’s tallest animal to Appendix II.

Asia’s smooth-coated and small-clawed otters, threatened by habit loss and possibly by trade in live animals, were transferred from Appendix II to Appendix I, which prohibits all commercial trade in the species that it lists.

Because the growing exotic pet trade has put enormous pressure on many species of turtle, lizard and gecko, CITES added a range of these species to the Appendices.

The Parties established the CITES Big Cat Task Force with a mandate to improve enforcement, tackle illegal trade and promote collaboration on conserving tigers, lions, cheetahs, jaguars and leopards.

Recognizing a CITES success story – the revival of vicuña populations through sustainable use in Bolivia, Peru and parts of Argentina – the conference downlisted a regional vicuña population in Argentina from Appendix I to Appendix II.

The American crocodile population of Mexico, another conservation success, was similarly downlisted in recognition of the population’s continued recovery.

Many countries and their CITES Management Authorities lack the necessary financial and institutional capacity to sustainably manage and conserve their wildlife. The conference took decisions promoting capacity building and other activities aimed at strengthening wildlife management and compliance with and enforcement of CITES trade rules.

In addition, the critical role of local and indigenous communities that live on the frontlines of wildlife conservation and sustainable management, and their need for adequate incomes and livelihoods, was widely recognized.

Overcoming a wide range of differing views, the conference asked Parties to begin considering how to best engage indigenous peoples and local communities in CITES decision-making and implementation. The aim is to better achieve the objectives of the Convention while recognizing those people whose use of CITES-listed species contributes significantly to their livelihoods.

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CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero, August 28, 2019 (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

“Humanity needs to respond to the growing extinction crisis by transforming the way we manage the world’s wild animals and plants. Business as usual is no longer an option,” said CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero.

“CITES conserves our natural world by ensuring that international trade in wild plants and animals is legal, sustainable and traceable. Well-managed trade also contributes to human wellbeing, livelihoods and the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals,” she said.

The conference reviewed progress on the implementation of previous measures aimed at ensuring the conservation and sustainable management of already-listed species, such as European eels, sharks, rosewood, great apes and songbirds. These reviews often took advantage of new data and information on population trends, trade levels and national plans and actions.

On the sidelines of CoP18, the Third Global Meeting of Wildlife Enforcement Networks brought together over 105 representatives from WENs, law enforcement bodies, international organizations and other stakeholders. The participants focused on further strengthening their collaborative efforts.

The conference also:

* – adopted the CITES Strategic Vision Post-2020, positioning CITES as a leader in promoting transformative change; environmental, economic and social sustainability; and the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

* – increased quotas for trophy hunting of adult male black rhinos, almost doubling the current quota of five, subject to strict controls; however, proposed trade in southern white rhino horns from Eswatini (Swaziland) and live animals and hunting trophies from Namibia were not accepted.

* – did not accept proposals to permit some limited trade in ivory from African elephants, which means that the existing trade ban remains in place.

* – urged Mexico to mobilize its legal authorities and navy to prevent fishers and vessels from entering the refuge for vaquitas, a near-extinct porpoise, and mandated the secretariat to assess the effectiveness of these measures by the end of 2019.

* – accepted a proposal by South Africa to exclude finished, retail-sales products of aloe, a popular medicinal plant, from the permitting system otherwise covering this plant; any possible impacts will be carefully monitored.

* – supported with unanimity a decision to examine trade in non-CITES listed songbirds, eels, Boswellia and rosewoods as a way of determining what role CITES could or should play in better conserving and managing these species.

* – held a meeting on the African Elephant Action Plan to encourage cooperation among the African elephant range states.

* – hosted over 80 side events that provided information and analysis to delegates on a wide range of CITES issues.

CoP18 was attended by 169 member governments (plus the EU) and some 1,700 delegates, observers and journalists.

In 2022, Costa Rica will host the next Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

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