Wildlife Trade in Focus at CITES Conference of the Parties

In September 2016, thousands of government delegates, scientists, industry representatives, and conservationists will gather in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CoP17 will tackle an ambitious agenda of working documents and species proposals to influence the treaty’s future and the species it is supposed to protect. At CoP16 in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2013, significant decisions were made to protect several species from unregulated trade, a welcome result compared to CoP15 in 2010, where politics prevailed over science. Which of these recent conferences CoP17 will emulate remains to be seen.

Host nation South Africa, like so many countries, is experiencing escalating trade in wildlife: It is the epicenter of an unrelenting slaughter of rhinoceroses; elephant poaching is on the rise; there is a massive illegal trade in sea cucumbers and abalone; and the country sanctions the highly controversial canned hunts of African lions.

Wildlife criminals and syndicates—driven by greed, buoyed by corruption, and operating without fear of apprehension or significant penalty—are stealing the world’s biodiversity to feed the insatiable demand for wildlife products. Nevertheless, efforts to combat the booming wildlife trade—both legal and illegal—have increased dramatically in recent years as governments, celebrities, scientists, and conservationists call attention to the threats not only to wildlife but also to human health, well-being, and security. Mountains of reports have been published and countless hours of meetings have been held worldwide. Only time will tell if such efforts will succeed.

CoP17 is an opportunity to confront such threats by listing species on CITES Appendix I or II and to advocate for a stronger treaty. Species on Appendix I cannot be traded commercially, while those on Appendix II are subject to regulated trade that is (in theory, at least) sustainable. CITES is described as an effective multinational environmental agreement, but many, including AWI, challenge this assessment due to weaknesses in the treaty’s implementation. CITES’ effectiveness is diminished by decision-making that is too often political, expedient, and opaque rather than science-based, precautionary, and transparent, as well as by inadequate national legislation, enforcement penalties, and implementation of the treaty’s requirements.

In Johannesburg, AWI will work with dozens of organizations within the Species Survival Network, a coalition of over 100 organizations concerned about wildlife trade. Such collective efforts should generate conservation victories for individual species and strengthen the treaty itself. In addition, AWI will bestow the Clark R. Bavin Wildlife Law Enforcement Award on a number of deserving recipients who have excelled—often at great personal risk—in the enforcement of wildlife laws.

A description of some of the species proposals and working documents (which relate to CITES implementation) follows.

Swaziland has submitted a proposal seeking permission to sell off its rhino horn stockpile, along with an additional 20 kilograms each year. Most wildlife experts strongly oppose legalizing rhino horn trade, as such trade would facilitate the laundering of illegally sourced horn, increasing the incentive for poaching and escalating threats to rhino populations in Africa and Asia.

Rhino poaching has increased exponentially since 2007. In Vietnam and other Asian countries, persistent but groundless claims that rhino horn can cure cancer help fuel the relentless poaching. Thirteen rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2007. For the past several years, however, the annual number poached has exceeded 1,000 and poaching has expanded to other African range states.
Recommendation: Oppose

The African lion is proposed for transfer from CITES Appendix II to I due to significant population declines and mounting threats to the species, including trade in lion parts, habitat loss, indiscriminate killing to protect livestock, and poorly regulated sport hunting. Lions inhabit only 8 percent of their historic range. Their numbers dropped by at least 43 percent between 1993 and 2014 and the species has been extirpated from 16 countries. Lion numbers in West, Central, and East Africa are predicted to decline by another 50 percent over the next two decades. Despite such declines, trade in lions has increased. From 2005 to 2014, more than 29,000 lion specimens, including lion parts, were exported globally—including more than 11,000 items from wild lions.
Recommendation: Support

The western tur, a wild goat species endemic to the Caucasus Mountains in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia, is proposed for inclusion on CITES Appendix II with a zero export quota for commercial trade or hunting trophies. The number of western tur has declined from an estimated 12,000 animals in the 1980s to 5,000 today. Trophy hunting, along with biological characteristics such as low productivity and high kid mortality, makes the species particularly vulnerable to the impacts of trade.
Recommendation: Support

African elephants will generate considerable debate at CoP17 due to the ongoing poaching crisis, which is claiming an estimated 96 elephants each day. All African elephant populations are proposed for listing on Appendix I to reverse the unsustainable demand for ivory and to make clear to criminal syndicates that trade in ivory must stop. Since 1997, African elephants have been split-listed, with all populations on Appendix I except for those in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana. The one-off sales of stockpiled ivory to Japan in 1999 and, particularly, to Japan and China in 2008 stimulated the demand for ivory, triggering the current poaching crisis. From 1989 to 1997, a period when all elephants were included on Appendix I, poaching rates substantially declined.

According to recent data analyses, elephant poaching rates continue to exceed normal elephant herd growth rates. Population data from the World Conservation Union’s African Elephant Database indicate that the continent-wide elephant population has declined from an estimated 556,000 in 2006 to 473,000 in 2013. In many countries, declines have exceeded 50 percent, while some local populations have been wiped out altogether. A new elephant census, the results of which will be published before CoP17, is expected to reveal further continent-wide declines in elephant numbers.
Recommendation: Support

All eight species of pangolin (aka scaly anteater)—four native to Africa (white-bellied, black-bellied, giant ground, and Temminck’s ground) and four to Asia (Chinese, Sunda, Philippine, and Indian)—are proposed for transfer from Appendix II to Appendix I due to substantial illegal trade. Pangolins are the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, with an estimated 1 million animals illegally traded from 2004–2014 to satisfy demand in China and other Asian countries for live animals, meat, and parts—particularly scales. China’s high demand for pangolins and commercial extinction of its own has triggered escalating exploitation of pangolins throughout other parts of Asia and Africa. Pangolins are threatened by local collection and use of meat and scales, illegal international trade, and habitat loss, which have contributed to massive declines in pangolin numbers.
Recommendation: Support

The earless monitor lizard, found in isolated populations in Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia, is proposed for listing on Appendix I due to substantial illegal trade as pets. Trade in this species, particularly from West Kalimantan, Indonesia, has increased substantially since 2013, with animals reported in trade within Japan, France, the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States. The impact of trade is inferred to be great; given its small habitat area, its fragmented distribution, and deforestation in the area, the species is considered to be in a precarious situation.
Recommendation: Support

All species of African pygmy chameleons are proposed for listing on Appendix II to regulate trade in imperiled species or due to similarity in appearance. (CITES allows listing of look-alike species to protect them from trade and to facilitate enforcement.) As CITES protections were bestowed upon other chameleons, the demand for pet African pygmy chameleons (primarily in Europe and the United States) skyrocketed. From 2001 to 2014, the United States imported more than 185,000 pygmy chameleons, with over 98 percent of those removed from the wild.
Recommendation: Support

The psychedelic rock gecko, turquoise dwarf gecko, and masobe gecko are proposed for listing on Appendix I due to demand from the international pet trade in Europe, the United States, and other countries, and elsewhere via online sales. These species, found in southern Vietnam, Tanzania, and central-eastern Madagascar, respectively, exist in small and/or declining populations.
Recommendation: Support

The African grey parrot is proposed for transfer from Appendix II to Appendix I to stem the substantial legal and illegal trade in this popular pet, whose wild populations have plummeted. Since 1975, over 1.3 million wild grey parrots, native to West and Central Africa, have been exported, making this one of the most highly traded of all CITES-listed birds. In addition to legal trade, there is evidence of significant quantities of parrots in illegal trade. The number of birds in trade underestimates actual impacts due to substantial pre-export mortality rates which, in some cases, equal 50 percent of captured birds. Ongoing collection for international trade and significant habitat loss are causing massive declines in grey parrot populations—between 90 and 99 percent in Ghana and in excess of 50 percent in other range states, while parrots in several range states are rare or locally extinct.
Recommendation: Support

Madagascar has submitted two proposals for the tomato frog, false tomato frog, and antsouhy tomato frog. The tomato frog was listed on CITES Appendix I in 1987 but now is proposed for transfer to Appendix II, while the other two species are proposed for listing on Appendix I. All three species were/are in demand for the international pet trade. False tomato frogs are taken from the wild and traded in large numbers due to the Appendix I listing of the tomato frog. Madagascar claims the tomato frog is very common. It offers no credible or recent evidence to support this claim, however, and does disclose that tomato frog numbers in the species’ best-known location have declined. Due to their similar appearance, split-listing the species will transfer trading pressure from the more to the less protected species, while an Appendix I listing would benefit all three species.
Recommendation: Oppose transfer of tomato frog to Appendix II, support Appendix I listing of other two

Six species of soft-shell turtles, found in Africa and the Middle East, are proposed for listing on Appendix II due to ongoing and unsustainable trade, primarily for consumption in eastern Asia. As turtle populations in Asia have been decimated, turtle populations in Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas have been exploited to meet demand.
Recommendation: Support

The Titicaca water frog, endemic to the highlands of Peru and Bolivia, is proposed for listing on Appendix I due to severe population declines, attributed to illegal and indiscriminate capture, domestic and international trade, habitat degradation, and other threats. The number of frogs declined by over 80 percent since 2000, with tens of thousands of frogs (including over 40,000 in Bolivia alone) collected annually for human consumption as meat, traditional medicines, or extracts, or for trade within Latin America.
Recommendation: Support

The silky shark and three species of thresher sharks (bigeye, common, and pelagic) are proposed for inclusion in Appendix II due to the overexploitation of the species for the international shark fin trade (or for shark fin look-alike reasons in the case of the common and pelagic thresher sharks). The trade has contributed to significant declines of these species throughout their global range. Silky sharks are taken in very large numbers by both target and bycatch fisheries. Worldwide, silky sharks have declined by more than 70 percent in almost every area they are found and for which data, ecological risk assessments, and stock assessments are available. Despite this decline, the proportion of silky shark fins available in the shark fin market has increased from 3.5 percent in the early 2000s to as high as 7.5 percent in 2013. Over the past 36–39 years, bigeye thresher populations have declined by 70 to 80 percent in the Atlantic Ocean and by over 80 percent in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Meanwhile, the availability of thresher shark fins in Hong Kong markets has declined by 77 to 99 percent in the past 10–15 years.
Recommendation: Support

Chambered nautiluses are proposed for listing on Appendix II due to documented population declines, substantial international trade, and biological characteristics that make the species highly susceptible to overexploitation. While nautilus meat is consumed locally or traded, the colorful shells drive the international trade in this species via tourist souvenirs, jewelry, and home décor items. The United States alone imported more than 900,000 chambered nautilus specimens, including 104,000 individuals and 805,000 parts, from 2005–2014, with 99 percent of the specimens taken from the wild. Populations are locally extirpated or have declined throughout the species’ range (including by 97 percent in the Philippines) due to habitat degradation and serial depletion, as collectors exhaust populations and move on to exploit new ones.
Recommendation: Support

Devil ray species, found in tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, are proposed for listing on Appendix II due to unsustainable trade, contributing to declining population numbers. The proposal specifically seeks an Appendix II designation for the sicklefin and spinetail devil rays, while all other devil ray species would be listed based on similarity of appearance. Gill plates, used by rays to filter food from water, are in high demand for use in health tonics. Because it is difficult to identify the species of dried gill plates and because CITES afforded manta rays protection in 2013, devil rays have been subject to increased fishing pressure. Catch data for sicklefin and spinetail rays reveal massive population declines of more than 95 percent in the Indo-Pacific region over the last 15 years, with sizeable declines reported in other regions.
Recommendation: Support

The Banggai cardinalfish, a popular ornamental fish species endemic to the Banggai Archipelago off Central Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia, is proposed for listing on Appendix II. Surveys in 2015 estimated that 1.4 million fish remain in small, isolated populations, a 36 percent decline in numbers since 2007 and a decline of over 90 percent since 2000. In 2007, at least 900,000 fish were collected. According to fish traders, however, 25 to 50 percent of captured fish perish before export, thereby increasing collection pressures to meet demand.
Recommendation: Support

In addition to species proposals, CoP17 delegates will deliberate a number of working documents covering issues ranging from the mundane to the vital. These include treaty implementation and species-specific resolutions and decisions on standards and guidance for the regulation and monitoring of international trade. To promote transparency, Israel is seeking to alter voting procedures to require a majority of parties present to approve any casting of votes in secret, rather than the mere 10 votes required to approve secret votes now.

The trade in bushmeat, freshwater stingrays, shahtoosh shawls from Tibetan antelope, rhino horn, saiga antelope, Asian big cats, great apes, pangolins, and snakes will be discussed. The bushmeat trade is devastating wildlife populations, leading to “empty forests” where habitat is available but few animals exist. In China, thousands of captive tigers are bred under cruel conditions to generate a constant supply of animals to feed the black market trade in tiger parts. Massive numbers of snakes are collected from the wild and killed for the skin trade, with virtually no credible scientific evidence to demonstrate sustainability or to identify non-CITES-listed snake species that may warrant CITES protections.

Wildlife crime, including cybercrime, will be discussed, as well as strategies to improve enforcement of wildlife laws and reduce demand for wildlife products. Online trade in wildlife has skyrocketed in the past decade, facilitating trafficking while complicating law enforcement.

National legislation implementing CITES must be strong to prosecute and penalize wildlife criminals. Yet there are 81 countries, including Botswana, Chile, Georgia, Nepal, the Philippines, Tanzania, and Zambia, that have been parties to CITES for more than five years but still don’t have adequate laws implementing the treaty. This, too, will be a topic of discussion.

The role of corruption in wildlife trade, conflicts of interest among members of CITES committees (e.g., Animals, Plants, and Standing Committees), disposal of confiscated CITES-protected wildlife species (live and dead), trade in Appendix I and captive-bred specimens, trade in hunting trophies, and traceability systems will all be deliberated. Corruption is a key contributor to wildlife trade and needs to be reined in.

Furthermore, although Appendix I is often considered a block to trade, there are a number of treaty provisions that permit trade. In 2013, the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre found extensive trade in Appendix I species, particularly whales for meat, not consistent with the spirit of CITES.

Elephants and the ivory trade are the subject of a number of documents. A proposal on the trade in live elephants asks that future trade be limited to in-situ conservation projects instead of subjecting wild-caught elephants to a lifetime of suffering in captivity. The closure of domestic ivory markets (a key to reducing demand for ivory and ending the elephant poaching crisis) will be deliberated, as will guidance on monitoring and destroying ivory stockpiles—an increasingly popular action taken by at least 20 countries since 2011 to signify their opposition to the ivory trade. Trade in ivory from long-extinct mammoths, which may be used as a cover for illegal trafficking of elephant ivory, would be subject to increased scrutiny and monitoring under another proposal. Even protections for the helmeted hornbill, a bird species native to the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Borneo with a casque on its bill made of solid keratin, will be debated to address population threats linked to poachers profiting from the illegal trade in “hornbill ivory.”

The decision-making mechanism (DMM) for ivory trading is also at issue. In 2007, an effort was initiated to develop a framework for legalized ivory trade. But with no progress made on the DMM and elephant poaching continuing at alarming levels, one proposal seeks an end to the DMM process. Meanwhile, South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe—which all would profit from a legal ivory trade—seek additional DMM deliberations.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of CoP17. Will governments and NGOs that promote the exploitation of global biodiversity for profit prevail, or will science and conservation win out? AWI will work toward achieving the latter and will report on the outcome in a future edition of the AWI Quarterly.