183 Countries Are Meeting to Discuss the Future of the World’s Wildlife


Taylor Hill, Take Part

Date Published

Trying to determine the value of the black market wildlife trade is, by its nature, nearly impossible. But the trafficking monitoring group TRAFFIC estimates billions of dollars’ worth of plants and animal species are traded illegally each year.

The potential impact of wildlife trafficking on rare and endangered species led to the signing in 1973 of an international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

CITES governs the trade of more than 35,000 species of plants and animals, and delegates from 183 countries are gathering Sept. 24 to Oct. 5 for the 17th Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg.

The conference will consider more than 200 proposals, 62 of which are aimed at either tightening or loosening trade restrictions for certain species.

Elephants and a Ban on Ivory

In an effort to stem the poaching crisis devastating African elephants, a group of 29 African countries, known as the African Elephant Coalition, is calling for a permanent ban on the international trade in elephant ivory.

All populations of African elephants were listed by CITES in 1989, effectively banning all international trade of ivory. But protections were weakened in 1997 and 2000, when populations recovered in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. With elephant poaching numbers reaching historic highs, the AEC is again calling for an all-out ban.

Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, on the other hand, are calling for CITES rules to be relaxed, allowing ivory to be traded legally.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently passed a resolution urging countries to close domestic markets for commercial trade in elephant ivory—a move that could bode well for the upcoming CITES conference.

While the IUCN’s policies carry considerable moral authority, the organization does not have legal authority to enforce its rulings..

“The real decisions to protect elephants will take place at CITES,” said Vera Weber, president of animal protection group Foundation Franz Weber. “We hope the IUCN vote will motivate CITES delegates to adopt these proposals submitted by the majority of African governments, which will comprehensively prohibit commercial sales of ivory for good, and hopefully halt the catastrophic decline of elephants.”

Ban International Trade of All Pangolin Species

Despite protections already in place, pangolins—the scaly-skinned relatives of anteaters—are considered the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world.

Native to Asia and Africa, all eight species of pangolins are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. Still, the animals remain under CITES regulations, meaning trade of the animals requires permits, and the exporting countries must prove the activity will not have a negative impact on the species.

Despite the restrictions, more than 1 million pangolins were poached and illegally traded globally over the past decade, according to a report from TRAFFIC.

“Existing laws are clearly failing to protect pangolins from the poachers: a complete international trade ban is needed now,” said Heather Sohl, chief adviser of wildlife at World Wildlife Fund–UK.

Five proposals submitted by the United States and 18 other countries call for a ban on the international trade of pangolins and pangolin parts.

Rhino Horn Trade Could Be Reopened in Swaziland

Conservation groups are pleading with the king of Swaziland to withdraw his proposal to legalize international trade in rhino horn. If it’s approved, the country could sell horns that rangers have previously seized from poachers. The proposal also allows for horns to be taken from rhinos in nonlethal harvests, and for rhino horns to sold from rhinos that have died of natural causes.

The increasing demand for rhino horn in the Asian market has fueled the poaching crises in African and Asian rhinoceros species. In South Africa alone, poachers have slaughtered more than 1,000 rhinos annually three years in a row.

“With poaching at such devastating levels, the future survival of rhinos in the wild is already uncertain,” Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife at Humane Society International, said in a statement. “Legalizing the trade in their horn could very well be enough to tip the scales toward certain extinction.”

More Sharks and Rays Need Protection

Demand for shark fins used for shark fin soup and ray gill plates for use in Chinese traditional medicines is threatening some of the ocean’s largest predators and filter feeders.

At the CITES 2013 Conference of Parties in Bangkok, five shark species, including the oceanic white tip, porbeagle, and three species of hammerhead, and all manta rays were given protection under CITES’ Appendix II designation.

Now, delegates will consider adding three more species to be regulated—silky sharks, thresher sharks, and devil rays.

“CITES has demonstrated the added value of CITES in protecting sharks and rays from overexploitation,” CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon said in a statement.  

African Gray Parrot Endangered by Pet Trade

African gray parrots are highly intelligent, which makes them sought after in the pet bird market. But according to a recent report by the Wildlife Conservation Society and TRAFFIC, the international demand for pet birds in Singapore has led to rapid declines of the species across its range in central and west Africa.

In response, a number of African countries, led by Gabon, are proposing moving African Grey Parrot from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I—the strictest category—to stop the unsustainable commercial trade in these wild birds.