The signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will be meeting in Johannesburg for an important conference later this year. What are the likely highlights going to be?
Controlling the trade in endangered plants and animals
The seventeenth CITES Convention of the Parties (CoP17) will take place at the Sandton Convention Centre from the 24th of September to the 5th of October.
Not a conservation organisation per se, CITES regulates the international trade in endangered wild plants and animals by listing them in three appendices according to the degree to which they require protection.
Appendix I includes species that are threatened by extinction. Buying and selling them internationally is only permitted under exceptional circumstances. The species in Appendix II are subject to controlled trade regulations designed to ensure their survival. Appendix III species are protected in at least one country which has asked the other member states for help in managing trade.
Every three years, the rules which govern CITES are debated and voted on at its Conference of the Parties. Members had until the 27th of April to submit proposals for the CoP17 agenda.
While countries can still withdraw proposals that fail to gain sufficient traction, the provisional list of proposals offers a good indication of some of the key issues that are likely to be debated at the convention.
Most of the proposals involve requests to either elevate or demote species from one appendix to another, but as Dr Pieter Kat, the Director of the international conservation organisation LionAidpoints out, some contentious procedural topics may also be on the agenda.
“There might be some proposals to reconsider the way CITES operates,” he explains. One such matter involves the fact that member countries can request votes on particular proposals to be secret, allowing signatories to vote anonymously on controversial issues.
Critics complain that CITES involves a lot of political influence-peddling and horse-trading. Secret voting allows countries to negotiate with one another on how to vote on contested proposals, sometimes to the detriment of conservation priorities.
“CITES is part of the United Nations,” says Kat, “and the United Nations does not allow secret votes. Somehow this practice has crept into CITES procedures and it’s happening more and more, so it may be put on the agenda once again”.
“Personally, I would like to see discussion around compliance and enforcement being made a priority,” says South African conservationist Ian Michler. “Without a far greater effort going into the commitments made by CITES members, all resolutions around protecting habitat and species become meaningless. I think CITES should be reconstituted to become a relevant crime combating agency rather than a body that merely regulates the rate at which species decline”.
Following months of speculation, the South African government announced that it would not be submitting a proposal to lift the ban on international trade in rhino horn which has been in place since 1977.
In a surprise move, however, Swaziland has proposed a modification to the current Appendix II listing of its population of 73 southern white rhino in order to allow it to sell its existing 330 kilogram stockpile of horns to “a small number of licensed retailers in the Far East”, as well as an additional 44 kilograms of non-lethally harvested horns per year to the same unidentified buyers.
Experts believe that a vote on such a proposal would be very unlikely to garner the required support of two-thirds of CITES’ 182 member states.
A group of African countries are proposing to move all populations of African lion from their current status in Appendix II to Appendix I. At the moment, only the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) is listed in Appendix I.
The peculiar-looking pangolin, which is hunted for its meat and scales, is the subject of four separate proposals. Several countries, bolstered by the USA, are suggesting that all of the world’s pangolin species – four in Asia and four in Africa – be promoted from Appendix II to Appendix I. “More pangolins are involved in illegal trade than pretty much any other species of mammal,” explains Kat, “and many experts agree that to stop this, pangolins will have to be on Appendix I”.
Cape mountain zebra
Arguing that “harvesting” the species from the wild would not reduce wild populations to the extent that its survival would be threatened, and that international trade would increase its commercial value and geographical range, South Africa is proposing to downgrade the Cape mountain zebra from Appendix I to Appendix II.
Turtles are the world’s most endangered vertebrates. At the CITES CoP16, held in Bangkok in 2013, 47 species of freshwater turtles were afforded greater protection. Declining numbers and improved conservation measures in Asia have resulted in the demand for turtle cartilage and meat to shift to African species. To counter this threat, a number of African countries and the USA are arguing for six species of softshell and flapshell turtles native to Africa and the Middle East to be listed in Appendix II.
Zimbabwe and Namibia want annotations to the Appendix II listing of their elephant populations to be modified. Along with Botswana and South Africa, both countries were granted a once-off sale of their ivory stockpiles in 2008. The annotations in question state that no proposals for further ivory sales can be submitted for nine years after this sale.
Evidently Zimbabwe and Namibia are keen on selling more ivory before the end of this time limit. In its submission, Zimbabwe claims that “effective and sustainable conservation of Zimbabwe’s elephants is wholly dependent on establishing regular open market sales of elephant ivory to fund management and enforcement actions”, apparently disregarding the contribution made by sustainable wildlife tourism to fund such activities.
By contrast, a group of ten African countries and Sri Lanka have submitted a proposal to include all African elephant populations, including those of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, in Appendix I.
“There is likely to be a discussion over the highly controversial decision-making mechanism for ivory trade,” says Susie Watts of WildAid, an organisation that works on reducing global consumption of wildlife products. “This issue has been dragging on for years and the debate now centres around whether, at this critical time for elephants, CITES should even be talking about a legal ivory trade”.
Stephen Sautner of the Wildlife Conservation Society points out that Kenya, Gabon, the USA and other countries have submitted proposed resolutions that call on all CITES member states to close their domestic ivory markets. “International ivory trade is already prohibited, but open domestic markets undermine efforts to stop poaching of elephants and trafficking in their ivory, and stimulate laundering of illegal ivory through the ‘legal’ system”.
South Africa is proposing an Appendix II listing for Siphonochilus aethiopicus (wild ginger) in Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. One of the top ten most popular traditional medicines in the region, its use as a charm against lightening and to treat coughs, colds and hysteria, have led to its extinction in much of its former range in South Africa.