GENEVA, Switzerland, August 13, 2019 (ENS) – The 183 countries that are Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, will adopt decisions and resolutions to expand and strengthen the global wildlife trade regime at CITES’ upcoming triennial World Wildlife Conference. The 18th such meeting, informally known as COP18, will be held at Palexpo in Geneva from August 17 to 28.

Governments have submitted 56 new proposals to change the levels of protection that CITES provides for species of wild animals and plants that are traded internationally.

Higuero

Ivonne Higuero took charge of CITES on December 3, 2018 after more than 20 years with the United Nations. (Photo courtesy UN Geneva, June 19, 2019)

In total, some 550 species may be affected by the proposed changes. They include the African elephant, the giraffe, a variety of lizards, geckos and newts, tortoises, sharks, sea cucumbers, Grandidier’s baobab and North Indian rosewood trees.

Many of these proposals seek to ensure that trade in at-risk species remains sustainable by requiring trade permits through a CITES Appendix II listing.

Others recommend banning all commercial trade in specimens of species threatened by extinction by listing them on Appendix I.

Still others aim to provide evidence that a population has stabilized or expanded and can be safely transferred from Appendix I to Appendix II.

CITES’ new Secretary-General, environmental economist Ivonne Higuero of Panama, said, “CITES sets the rules for international trade in wild fauna and flora. It is 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.

“This year’s conference will focus on strengthening existing rules and standards while extending the benefits of the CITES regime to additional plants and animals threatened by human activity,” she said.

COP18 Proposals: Cats, Elephants, Giraffes, Rhinos, Reptiles, Fish and Trees

The big cats of Africa and Asia are under threat from a wide range of pressures, including poaching and illegal trade. COP18 delegates will consider establishing a CITES Big Cats Task Force to strengthen action on conserving these high-profile species in Asia. The conference also has agenda items on Africa’s cheetahs and lions and Latin America’s jaguars.

giraffes

Giraffes in Namibia, May 6, 2018 (Photo by Thomas Gerhard)

Populations of the giraffe have declined sharply over the past several decades due to habitat loss and other pressures. 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 species’ ongoing decline.

The white rhinoceros has been heavily poached for its horn for many years. Although the population of southern white rhinos, Ceratotherium simum simum, in Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) is listed on Appendix II, an annotation currently prevents international trade in rhino horn. Eswatini proposes removing this annotation so that it can sell an existing stock of 330 kg of rhino horn and then 20 kg per year from non-lethal harvesting.

Namibia proposes transferring its population of southern white rhinos from Appendix I to II with an annotation solely for the sale of live animals and for hunting trophies, with all other specimens to remain on Appendix I.

COP18 will once again consider a number of elephant proposals. The African elephant was moved from CITES Appendix II to CITES Appendix I in 1989 after decades of ivory poaching had greatly reduced many populations. In 1997 and 2000, recognizing that some southern African elephant populations were healthy and well managed, CITES agreed to downlist the populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to Appendix II. In 1999 and again in 2008, sales of registered stocks of government-owned ivory from these countries were authorized to China and Japan.

Now, Zambia proposes to downlist its elephant population from Appendix I to Appendix II to permit sales of registered ivory stocks to CITES-approved buyers as well as some specified non-ivory trade.

Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe would like to enable trade in registered ivory stocks to CITES-verified partners as well as some specified non-ivory trade. They propose to do this by amending an annotation that, although their elephant populations are listed in Appendix II, currently disallows trade.

elephants

Elephants in Zimbabwe, Nov. 7, 2016 (Photo by David Nunn)

A group of 10 countries takes a very different tack by proposing that the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe be moved from Appendix II to Appendix I, under which no trade is allowed. These countries are Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria and Togo.

To provide objective assessments of trends in elephant poaching and illegal trade in ivory, CITES established the Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program and the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS). Their results inform the decisions taken by Parties on elephant conservation and the ivory trade.

Finally on the ivory issue, and in a first for CITES, Proposal 13 calls for listing a long-extinct species. Israel proposes 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.

Twenty of the listing proposals to be presented at COP18 are inspired by concern over the growing appetite of the exotic pet trade for charismatic amphibians and reptiles.

The trend towards applying CITES rules to trade in high-value fish and tree species continues, as do the debates over how best to manage the African elephant populations and what to do with their ivory tusks. Illegal killing of rhinos and the related trade in rhino horn is also high on the agenda.

Delegates also will decide whether musical instruments made of precious wood from trees regulated by the Convention should be exempted from CITES controls.

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North Indian Rosewood tree growing in Pakistan, Aug. 10, 2011 (Photo by Khalid Mahmood)

The Mulanje cedar is the national tree of Malawi. Because its yellow-white timber is highly resistant to fungal rot, insects and decay, it is highly valued. It has been overexploited by illegal loggers. Malawi proposes an Appendix II listing for this cedar.

The proposal on North Indian rosewood is the only one at COP18 recommending that a species be deleted from the CITES appendices. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal propose removing this tree, which is used for timber, furniture, musical instruments and many other purposes, from Appendix II because it is abundant and sustainably harvested.

Governments will evaluate each listing proposal and decide to adopt it by consensus or, if necessary, by vote.

In addition to analyzing the proposals themselves, government representatives can consider the views of the organizations that were formally invited to provide their comments as stakeholders.

The Secretariat itself is tasked with evaluating the proposals for whether they satisfy agreed trade and biological criteria, and reviewing technical and scientific factors.

“Clear and enforceable rules based on sound science and effective policies are vital for protecting natural wealth and achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals that have been adopted by the world’s governments,” said Higuero. “Because it is science-based, implementation-oriented and pragmatic, CITES plays an essential role in advancing international efforts to conserve and sustainably use our natural capital.”

Strategizing to Halt Rapid Decline in Species

In May, the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services confirmed that species and ecosystems around the world are in rapid decline. One of the main drivers of species decline is the direct overexploitation of living organisms, including unsustainable or illegal hunting, fishing and logging.

In July, the latest update of the Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, shows that overfishing has pushed two families of rays to the brink of extinction while hunting for bushmeat and habitat loss have led to the decline of seven primate species.

giant guitarfish

Wedgefishes and giant guitarfishes, known as Rhino Rays because of their long snouts, are now the most imperiled marine fish families in the world, with all but one of the 16 species Critically Endangered. This Giant Guitarfish was photographed near Durban, South Africa, Aug. 27, 2007 (Photo by Peter Giger)

The update also reveals further evidence of the perilous state of freshwater fishes globally. This is shown by high numbers of species threatened by the loss of free-flowing rivers, habitat degradation, pollution and invasive species in Japan and Mexico.

This Red List update confirms the findings of the recent IPBES Global Biodiversity Assessment: nature is declining at rates unprecedented in human history,” said Jane Smart, global director of the IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. “Both national and international trade are driving the decline of species in the oceans, in freshwater and on land. Decisive action is needed at scale to halt this decline; the timing of this assessment is critical as governments are starting to negotiate a new global biodiversity framework for such action.”

In addition to the 56 proposals for amending the CITES Appendices, the COP18 agenda also seeks to adopt a strategy for the coming years and improve the effectiveness of the Convention through agreements on the interpretation and implementation of its provisions.

Along these lines, the CITES Strategic Vision Post-2020 document will be presented for discussion and adoption. The draft vision foresees that “By 2030, all international trade in wild fauna and flora is legal and sustainable, consistent with the long-term conservation of species, and thereby contributing to halting biodiversity loss.”

The Strategic Vision also highlights CITES’ role in contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The success of CITES is based in good part on having a solid legal basis and an effective compliance regime. When there is evidence that a Party may not be fully complying with their obligations under the Convention, CITES provides technical assistance and capacity building to bring the country back into compliance.

If necessary, CITES can also adopt compliance measures which may include a recommendation to suspend all trade in a listed species or even in all CITES-listed species.

Wildlife Crime High on the Agenda

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

Among other issues, the conference will address wildlife crime linked to the Internet, the use of forensic applications, corruption, a threat assessment report on wildlife crime in West and Central Africa, and the storage and management of data on illegal trade used to inform decision-making.

pangolin

Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked animals, with 20 tonnes of pangolins and their parts smuggled every year, and over one million pangolins poached since 2009. China and Vietnam are the main buyers. This pangolin was photographed at a rescue center in Thailand, Sept. 7, 2017 (Photo by Roengchai Kongmuang, USAID Wildlife Asia)

Delegates will also focus on capacity building and technical support provided to Parties by the CITES Secretariat, Interpol, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank and the World Customs Organization under the auspices of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime.

Some Parties are of the view that trade in non-CITES-listed species should be examined to assess if CITES could play a role in managing such trade.

COP18 will discuss several documents that describe trade-related concerns for species and taxa currently not included in the CITES Appendices. These involve songbirds, amphibians, marine ornamental fish, Bangai cardinal fish and frankincense. The ongoing work under the Convention on rosewoods, eels as well as sharks and rays touches both on listed and non-listed species.

Many “wild” animal and plant species listed under CITES are now bred in captivity or cultivated for trade, but such trade must not be detrimental to the survival of a species in the wild. The conference will consider the broad issue of trade in animal and plant specimens from non-wild sources.

In addition to tackling these ongoing challenges, CITES Parties have generated many success stories. These often involve enabling rural communities to develop income or increase food security through the sustainable use and conservation of wild animals and plants. Examples include the vicuña, the Nile crocodile and the snowdrop flower.

The conference will also consider opportunities to enhance the role of indigenous, local and rural communities in CITES decision-making processes and how to further strengthen collaboration with other biodiversity-related conventions.

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