Sri Lanka to put its biodiversity in the spotlight at global trade summit


Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Mongabay

Date Published

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Sri Lanka hopes to use a top global biodiversity trade summit it’s hosting in May to shine a global spotlight on the island’s unique biodiversity.

The 18th meeting of the Conference of Parties (CoP18) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is scheduled to be held from May 23 to June 3 in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.

The Conference of Parties meeting will bring in nearly 4,000 delegates from 183 countries to discuss CITES international biodiversity trade policies, propose vital amendments, review action plans, and address implementation concerns, said John Amaratunge, the minister of tourism and wildlife conservation.

“It’s a good opportunity to draw global attention to the island’s unique biodiversity and to contribute to the global discussion on biodiversity conservation and trade,” he told Mongabay. “Biodiversity is a key driver of Sri Lanka’s tourism sector with national parks being huge revenue spinners. Famed for elephants, leopards, birds and reptiles, there is renewed interest in Sri Lanka’s wildlife in the aftermath of war and the visitors are increasing in number, as there is complete access to protected areas now.”

In October 2018, travel guide Lonely Planet listed Sri Lanka as the top destination for tourists in 2019, a decade after the end of a 26-year civil war.

“The war did not affect protected areas in a big way during the years of violent conflict but some locations in the island’s north and east remained inaccessible for years. Now visitors can have access to all of them,” Amaratunge said.

Sri Lanka is the first South Asian country to host a meeting of the World Wildlife Conference, as the CITES summit is popularly known.

“We have a reputation for species conservation and for avoiding questionable biodiversity trade,” Samantha Gunasekera, director of the Colombo-based CITES CoP18 Secretariat, told Mongabay.

Gunasekera said it was equally important to drum up support for the complete implementation of conservation-related domestic laws. “We look for full implementation of national regulations before the year ends, as per commitments made under the CITES Convention.”

Sri Lanka gained international recognition in 2016 for its decision to destroy 359 African elephant tusks worth an estimated $2.2 million under CITES. The ivory stock, weighing more than 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) was seized in 2012 by customs officials en route to Dubai from Kenya.

Trading Flora and Fauna  

The CITES meetings are generally held every three years, when trade rules relating to flora and fauna are reviewed and amendments are proposed for future conservation. CITES species listings have immense conservation implications, with those listed under Appendix I protected from commercial international trade, and species on Appendix II permitted for trade under specific conditions.

The decision to list any species under CITES is contentious, and among the most regularly debated is the move to conserve elephants through restrictions on ivory trading — a major source of income for several African countries that continue to lobby for more relaxed regulations on the trade.

Among the proposals slated for review during CoP18  is a combined proposal by Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria and Togo to have the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa moved from Appendix II to Appendix I, seeking to make ivory trading by any single country improbable. Going the other way is Zambia, which has listed a proposal to have its elephant population shifted from Appendix I to Appendix II.

A related but unusual proposal is Israel’s call to include in Appendix II the woolly mammoth — a species that went extinct more than 10,000 years ago but whose tusks continue to be dug up from the Siberian permafrost to feed demand for ivory in China.

Namibia has also proposed shifting its white rhino population from Appendix I to Appendix II.

Proposals need the support of two-thirds of the parties at the CITES conference to pass.

Protecting Endemic Lizards

The black-lipped lizard (Calotes nigrilabris) is an agamid species found only in Sri Lanka, and is now listed for enhanced protection.

Another agamid lizard endemic to the island is Pethiyagoda’s crestless lizard (Calotes pethiyagodai), restricted to the Knuckles Mountain Range, which sits at elevations of 900 to 1,400 meters (3,000 to 4,600 feet) and is considered a unique biodiversity location. Another species native to the area and listed for further protection is the Knuckles pygmy lizard (Cophotis dumbara), classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered due to rapid habitat loss and logging.

The pygmy lizard (Cophotis ceylanica) is another endemic agamid species on the proposed list, along with lizards under the genus Ceratophora, whose males sport a horn on the snout.

Sri Lanka has also submitted a joint proposal with the United States to protect tiger spiders, a genus of tarantulas native to Sri Lanka and India. India, too, is pushing for increased protection for specific species, with proposals on the Asian small-clawed otter, tokay gecko and Indian star tortoise.

CoP18 will be the final CITES CoP meeting prior to the Beijing summit in 2020 under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is expected to issue a new global biodiversity framework.