In every corner of our planet, a variety of threats such as habitat loss, climate change, over-exploitation and illegal trade put intense pressure on wild populations of animals and plants.
Illicit trafficking in wildlife now takes place at an industrial scale driven by transnational organized criminal groups. The phenomenon poses a real and immediate danger to some of our most precious species.
Fortunately, the international community has a legally binding agreement addressing these threats. It is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as CITES, and it is responsible for regulating international trade in wild animals and plants. The Convention also monitors and responds to both unsustainable and illegal wildlife trade.
The more than 180 nations, known as Parties1, that are signatories to CITES meet once every three years. At the end of September and into October 2016, they convened in Johannesburg, South Africa for their seventeenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17). The meeting was also known as the World Wildlife Conference.
Setting the Stage for CoP17
Several events never before held in conjunction with a CITES CoP preceded CoP17.
South Africa’s Minister for Environmental Affairs, Dr. Edna Molewa, convened the first-ever ‘Ministerial Lekgotla’, which focused on CITES and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.2The meeting attracted close to 50 Ministers worldwide as well as the Secretary-General of the World Customs Organization, the Head of UN Environment, and the Director-General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The inaugural ‘Youth Forum for People and Wildlife’ also took place in the lead up to CoP17 and brought together 34 committed young leaders from 25 countries.3Together with South Africa’s Youth and Conservation Programme, the Forum provided the impetus for the adoption of the first-ever CITES Resolution on Youth Engagement.
Further, HRH The Duke of Cambridge, a global champion in the fight against illegal wildlife trade,4spearheaded a unique event that connected Johannesburg, London and Tokyo via satellite. This virtual gathering drew international attention to illegal wildlife trade and generated momentum going into CoP17.
And, in an unprecedented initiative, the CITES and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Secretariats joined forces to hold four joint regional meetings throughout August. The meetings held in Africa, Asia, Central and South America and the Caribbean, and Oceania offered invaluable support to Parties preparing for both CITES CoP17 and the CBD COP13, which will commence in December.5
The Opening Ceremony – Delegates Drum to the Same Beat!
The CoP was formally opened by the President of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. Following his speech, a vibrant and energizing opening ceremony saw all delegates beating their own drums, all slightly differently, but to the same beat. In many ways, this ceremony would capture the spirit of the CoP itself, with delegates expressing differing views on issues, but all working towards the same objective.6
This creative and invigorating opening to CoP17 set the right atmosphere for the next nine days of intense, and at times robust, discussion. The CoP fostered dialogue among 2,600 delegates from more than 160 countries who all participated in a marathon series of deliberations and decisions covering trade in over 500 species of animals and plants. Another 1,000 media and local visitors also attended the meeting, with overall numbers at CoP17 exceeding 3,500 people.
What was Decided at CoP17?
CoP17 in South Africa will be remembered as the largest CITES CoP in the 43-year history of the Convention, both in terms of the number of participants and issues tabled for discussion. More importantly, the meeting was a game changer that delivered on new frontiers for wildlife in ways never before seen.
By the end of CoP17, CITES Parties adopted 51 of the 62 proposals7to change the listing status of close to 500 species of wild animals and plants under CITES Appendices,839 resolutions and 312 decisions.9These far-reaching outcomes of CoP17 will impact on wildlife and ecosystems, as well as on people and economies.
And CoP17 achieved these outcomes in record time, finishing one day ahead of schedule for the first time ever. This was testament to a combination of a generous Host Government in South Africa that created the perfect mood for the CoP, fantastic goodwill amongst the Parties, excellent preparation by the Host, Parties and the Secretariat, and the active and constructive involvement of many different observers.
CoP17 met the expectation that it would be the most critical meeting of the Convention’s 43-year history.10
CITES “Firsts” – Corruption, Cybercrime, Demand Reduction and More
At CoP17, for the first time, Parties took targeted decisions on corruption, cybercrime, traceability, demand reduction for illegally traded animals and plants, and legal acquisition findings, as well as major decisions on captive breeding. These decisions greatly enhanced outcomes from CoP16 held in 2013,11thereby closing the circle on the package of measures needed to bring illegal wildlife trade to an end.
The “firsts” were not limited to the CoP itself. In the margins of CoP17, the first Wildlife Crime Global Partnerships Coordination Forum12was hosted by the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC)13and the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group.14
It was the second time the world’s wildlife enforcement networks met,15following their initial meeting at CoP16. Participants agreed that ICCWC, the wildlife enforcement networks and the INTERPOL Working Group should continue to convene at each CITES CoP.
New Marine and Timber Species
Many new animals and plants, including marine species, such as silky and thresher sharks and devil rays, as well as hundreds of timber species, such as those in the entire genus Dalbergia (inclusive of over 300 species of rosewood), were all brought under the CITES trade control regime for the first time.16These decisions built upon the momentum that started in 2013 with CoP16, where Parties turned to CITES for help ensuring the sustainable management of ocean and forest flora and fauna.17
These new marine and timber listings at CoP16 and CoP17 represented a dramatic and positive shift in the use of this pragmatic and effective Convention in preventing the over-exploitation of commercially taken marine and forest species of wild animals and plants.
Increased Protection and Well-Targeted Enforcement
Several other species, and most notably all eight species of pangolins, were given added protection under CITES through an Appendix I listing. Many other species, including the cheetah, elephant, helmeted hornbill, tiger, totoaba (and vaquita), and rhino were the subject of specific decisions on improved conservation and management, and enhanced and well-targeted enforcement action and demand reduction strategies.
Elephants and Lions
Efforts to open legal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn were rejected, stronger decisions were taken to control domestic ivory markets, and the National Ivory Action Plan process was put on secure footing. The process of developing a decision-making mechanism for ivory trade was ended.
At the same time, efforts to add four populations of African elephants to Appendix I, which could have resulted in opening ivory trade through Parties entering reservations against such an up-listing,18were also rejected. This closed the door on any prospect of opening legal international trade in ivory through the decisions taken at CoP17.
Concerning African lions, for the first time, a dedicated set of measures were agreed to improve the effectiveness of lion conservation and management throughout its range. These were coupled with the first-ever global ban on commercial trade in wild-taken lion bones, claws, skeletons, skulls and teeth.
CoP17 also saw several conservation success stories where trade regulations of species were eased in recognition of healthy wild populations, as in the case of the South African Cape Mountain zebra and several crocodile species.
New Species that Did Not Make Headlines
A brief snapshot of CoP17 does not do justice to the many lesser known, but equally important species that were brought under CITES trade controls for the first time. These include the nautilus and Grandidier’s baobab tree, and many amphibians and reptiles, such as alligator lizards, the psychedelic rock gecko, the Chinese crocodile lizard, the Titicaca water frog, and the tomato frog – species often unsustainably exploited for the pet trade.
Hearing the Voices of Rural Communities and Youth
Also for the first time at a CITES CoP, the voices of rural communities and youth were at the heart of the meeting. This was a defining feature of CoP17, and decisions were taken to determine a way forward on how these groups could be better integrated into CITES’ processes. This will be further considered at CoP18 to be held in Sri Lanka in 2019.
What Happens Next
The decisions taken at CoP17 will not stay in the committee rooms of the Sandton Convention Centre. They will soon be reflected in legislation, regulation and operating practices across the world.19This will directly affect when, where and how wildlife and wildlife products can be bought and sold.
At CoP17, CITES was positioned as an agreement critical for achieving broader goals and targets, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the CITES Strategic Vision 2020 being amended to make specific reference to the SDGs. Wildlife trade is now firmly embedded in the agendas of global law enforcement, development and financing agencies, and these agencies will further deploy their collective capacity and expertise to implement the Convention on the frontlines of conservation, where it matters most.
Wildlife is Linked to Our Own Survival
The survival of humankind depends on the presence of wild animals and plants. It is therefore in our self-interest to safeguard wildlife not only for its own intrinsic value, but also for the many benefits it confers to people and livelihoods.
This is captured in the founding text of the Convention itself, which recognizes that wild fauna and flora is “an irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the Earth” with ever-growing value from “aesthetic, scientific, cultural, recreational and economic points of view.”
While we are still absorbing the full suite of decisions taken in Johannesburg, we are convinced that they will be a turning point in ensuring the survival of the world’s most vulnerable wildlife.
Time will tell whether this statement proves to be correct. For now, we will rapidly move to the implementation phase of our work as we look ahead to Colombo, Sri Lanka for CoP18 in 2019.
This article is being published on 20 October 2016 to coincide with the Convention entering into force for the Kingdom of Tonga, the 183rd Party to CITES.