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More than seven weeks after a series of deadly Easter Sunday bombings rocked Sri Lanka, an international summit on the wildlife trade originally scheduled to take place in Colombo last May has now been shifted to Geneva.
The announcement on the rescheduling of the 18th Meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP18) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was made June 12, amid growing concern from conservationists over the delay.
The meeting will now take place from Aug. 17 to 28 in Geneva, home to the CITES headquarters, CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero said in a statement.
“This conclusion was reached after a consultation process with the CITES Standing Committee where they expressed their security and other concerns, and after careful consideration of the report of the mission of the United Nations Department of Safety and Security to Sri Lanka to assess the security situation on the ground, and discussions with the Sri Lankan government,” Higuero said.
Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, Colombo, had been slated to host the top-level event from May 23 through June 3. But organizers announced April 26 that the event was indefinitely postponed, in the aftermath of the devastating bomb blasts that struck a series of churches and hotels in Colombo and surrounding areas on April 21 and claimed 258 lives.
The U.N., whose environmental agency administers the CITES Secretariat, carried out a security assessment to determine whether the summit could still be held in Sri Lanka, with local organizers hopeful it would go ahead. John Amaratunga, Sri Lanka’s tourism minister, told Mongabay in May that there was every likelihood the conference could be hosted in September or October, without a venue change. “It is still possible to play host,” he said.
But despite the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to retain Colombo as the host venue, the U.N.’s security assessment that was concluded on May 31 advised against it.
In a statement, the CITES Secretariat said it had consulted with stakeholders including the Sri Lankan government and the U.N.’s security department, and concluded that CoP18 “should be held in Geneva, Switzerland, in the earliest possible dates.”
There was pressure to get the summit going with minimal delay. Numerous conservation programs and activities are dependent on the outcome of the meeting, for which delegates had proposed increased trade protections for a host of plant and animal species.
“There is no doubt that this extraordinary situation in which the Convention and the Secretariat find themselves requires sacrifices to adjust to the consequences of the decision to change venue and dates,” Higuero said. “The aim of many of the Standing Committee Members was to ensure that the meeting would take place as soon as possible to take the decisions needed to address sustainability of trade in wildlife.”
She also expressed her gratitude to the Sri Lankan government for its understanding, adding, “It has been a very distressing time for all concerned.”
Vidya Abhayagunawardane, a Sri Lankan environmentalist who facilitated the destruction of a major stockpile of elephant ivory in 2015, told Mongabay that it was regrettable but understandable that the CITES Secretariat had decided not to host the meeting in Colombo after all.
“While it would have given a tremendous boost for conservation efforts here and highlight the island’s unique biodiversity, an adverse decision had to be expected in the light of the April 21 bombings,” he said.
The Sri Lankan government has put the economic impact of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks on the island’s tourism industry at a conservative estimate of about $2 billion. A multi-sectoral assessment of the economic cost to the country is expected to be much higher.