AWI wildlife attorney Tara Zuardo and wildlife biologist D.J. Schubert joined other animal welfare advocates, conservationists, government delegates, scientists, and industry representatives at 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), held September 24 to October 4 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In terms of both delegates and agenda items, CoP17 was the largest CITES meeting ever, with an ambitious workload of species proposals and working documents to guide the treaty’s future and the international trade in wildlife. For a number of species, protections from unsustainable trade were approved. As in past CoPs, there were also some serious setbacks, as the parties shied away from decisive actions needed to prevent other species from sliding closer to extinction. The following recap offers AWI’s analysis of where CoP17 crested… and where it cratered.
African grey parrots
Between 2 and 3 million African grey parrots have been taken from the wild and exported since 1975, many dying from abysmal conditions in captivity prior to being exported. In a significant win, wild African grey parrots were moved from the treaty’s Appendix II (trade regulated) to Appendix I (trade essentially banned). A challenge to enforcement, however, is the fact that African greys bred in captivity at a registered facility can still be traded commercially—a potential cover to sell wild specimens laundered as captive-bred birds.
All eight species of pangolin (scaly anteater) were placed on Appendix I. Pangolins—targeted for their scales (used in traditional medicines) and meat—are the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world. Much of the trade in pangolins—more than 1 million traded between 2004 and 2013—has already been illegal under CITES for years. The animals were previously listed on Appendix II, but in trade centers such as Laos, they were often bought and sold without the required paperwork. Although enforcement will remain a daunting issue, an Appendix I listing is a huge step in the right direction.
Barbary macaques also made it onto Appendix I. These animals, coveted as exotic pets, remain the most frequently confiscated live CITES-listed mammal in the European Union, accounting for 25 percent of total seizures. Meanwhile, new markets have emerged in Serbia, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine. The uplisting will help protect them from poaching, as well as help range countries such as Morocco and Algeria strengthen their national legislation and assign higher penalties for trade violations.
Amidst a raging poaching epidemic to feed the illicit ivory trade, elephants were in the spotlight at CoP17. Currently, African elephants are listed on Appendix I, except for those living in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, which are listed on Appendix II. In those nations, noncommercial trade of trophy-hunted elephants is allowed, and live animals from Botswana and Zimbabwe can be traded to “appropriate and acceptable destinations.”
Regrettably, a proposal to eliminate this split-listing and move all African elephants to Appendix I failed to pass. Botswana, alone among the four Appendix II nations, supported the uplisting. Much to our dismay, the European Union and United States voted against it, out of fear that southern African nations might withdraw from CITES (as Namibia had threatened to do) or take a “reservation” to the Appendix I listing, a move that would allow them to skirt CITES control with respect to trade in elephants and their parts and products. To AWI and others concerned about the fate of elephants, this concern was unwarranted and the EU/US position was weak-willed.
On the positive side, parties to the treaty voted to end long-running discussions to establish a decision-making mechanism (DMM) to permit controlled international ivory trade. Many governments argued that further DMM discussions serve only to legitimize ivory trade, stimulate demand for ivory, and increase elephant poaching. The parties also rejected proposals put forth by Namibia and Zimbabwe to approve the sale of government-owned and privately held ivory stockpiles.
The parties passed a resolution encouraging the closure of domestic ivory markets. Although international commercial trade in ivory has been banned since 1989 (with the exception of CITES approved one-off ivory sales in 1999 and 2008), domestic ivory markets have continued to create a significant opportunity for the laundering of illegal ivory to satisfy the high demand in China. The resolution calls on countries that still have a legal domestic ivory market to take all necessary steps (legislative, regulatory, and enforcement-related) to close markets that contribute to illegal trade or poaching.
The parties agreed to have the Animals Committee develop guidance on “appropriate and acceptable destinations” for live elephants traded in accordance with Appendix II. This is good news, as it affords an opportunity to address the capture of elephants from the wild and their condemnation to a lifetime in captivity in zoos—as occurred earlier this year when 17 wild elephants from Swaziland were sent to three US zoos. (Note: The guidance on destinations for Appendix II elephants would not directly apply to Swaziland elephants, which are listed on Appendix I.) We will continue to engage in this process in order to influence the guidance on what is an appropriate destination for a social, intelligent, long-lived, wide-ranging animal—one whose physical and psychological needs cannot possibly be met by a life in captivity.
A proposal to list all African lions on Appendix I failed. In a compromise vote, the parties agreed to ban all commercial trade in wild lion bones, claws, and skeletons, but continued to allow the export of lion trophies and parts from captive-bred lions. Subsequent to this decision, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that it will no longer allow the import of lion trophies taken from captive lion populations in South Africa, from which the vast majority of lion trophies imported into the United States have come in recent years. However, the USFWS will continue to allow in lion trophies from wild or wild-managed populations, claiming (dubiously) that this type of hunting “contribute[s] to the long-term conservation of the species in South Africa.”
The parties did vote to close the “personal and household effects” exemption for hunting trophies, per an EU proposal. Hunting trophies have historically been treated as personal effects under CITES, meaning that they are exempt from certain CITES requirements when worn or included in personal baggage. Between 2005 and 2014, over 600 lion trophies—as well as 1,100 elephant, 900 leopard, and 70 southern white rhino trophies—were exported under the personal effects exemption, despite the fact that many of the hunting trophies are shipped as freight, often many months after the hunter has departed the exporting country. Henceforth, hunters must obtain a CITES permit and the requisite “non-detriment” and “legal acquisition” findings in accordance with Articles III and IV of the treaty.
Silky sharks, thresher sharks, and devil rays were placed on Appendix II. Species including cheetahs, totoaba, and helmeted hornbills—already listed on Appendix I—also benefited as parties voted to bolster law enforcement against illegal trade. Several other species were approved for listing on Appendix I, including the Titicaca water frog, the psychedelic rock gecko, the turquoise dwarf gecko, and five species of alligator lizards (five other species were included on Appendix II). Appendix II protections were provided to the Hong Kong newt, marbled rain frog (and two related species), Mount Kenya bush viper, Kenyan horned viper, masobe gecko, and clarion angelfish, as well as all African pygmy chameleon and nautilus species (the latter being the first marine cephalopod protected by CITES). Fortunately, parties rejected a proposal to downlist the peregrine falcon from Appendix I to II and overwhelmingly opposed Swaziland’s request to trade in rhino horn. Unfortunately, a proposal to list the Banggai cardinalfish on Appendix II was withdrawn, potentially jeopardizing the very survival of this species.
A resolution was adopted to address corruption and wildlife cybercrime, the latter of which has emerged as a serious threat to endangered species; one report found that more than 30,000 endangered animals, parts, and products were available for purchase online during a single six-week period. With this decision, the CITES secretariat will, among other tasks, engage with Interpol to utilize its expertise to help countries combat wildlife cybercrime and assist parties in improving their national legislation to address such crimes.
One of the main themes that continually came up at CoP17 was compliance: It remains CITES’ biggest hurdle, as 50 percent of the parties still do not have adequate laws implementing the treaty. The protection of animals subject to trade depends on countries incorporating CITES decisions into their national laws and subsequently enforcing them. If national laws are not sufficient, then control of international wildlife trade via the treaty is impossible.
In summary, despite some disappointments and ongoing compliance/enforcement issues, CoP17 was one of the most successful CoPs to date—described by CITES Secretariat-General John Scanlon as a “game changer.” With almost all proposals ultimately being accepted this year, governments from around the world arguably chose to embrace sound science and the precautionary principle in favor of animals. We now must work to ensure that the progress made in the meeting rooms at CoP17 translates to benefits to wildlife species under siege around the globe.