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175 governments weigh stricter controls over wildlife trade

New measures to conserve and manage sustainably bluefin tuna, elephants, and a wide range of sharks, corals, reptiles, insects and plants have been proposed by governments attending the next world conference of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Over 40 proposals will be decided on at the conference,...

New measures to conserve and manage sustainably bluefin tuna, elephants, and a wide range of sharks, corals, reptiles, insects and plants have been proposed by governments attending the next world conference of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Over 40 proposals will be decided on at the conference, in Doha, Qatar, from March 13 to 25, the CITES Secretariat said in a news statement today.

Some governments will propose to lift CITES regulations on some species, underlining the success of CITES in key areas, CITES added.

CITES is an international agreement to which 175 countries adhere voluntarily. States that have agreed to be bound by the convention are known as parties. The agreement is legally binding but cannot be enforced unless each party adopts its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level.

An explanation of how CITES regulates the global trade in wildlife is pasted in at the bottom of this post.

Overfishing, excessive logging

Many of the proposals to be considered in Doha next month reflect growing international concern about the accelerating destruction of the world’s marine and forest ecosystems through overfishing and excessive logging, and the potential impacts of climate change on the biological resources of the planet, CITES said today.

“The UN General Assembly has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity and the CITES Conference will be one of the key occasions governments will have this year to take action to protect biodiversity.”

Other issues on the agenda include the adoption of urgent measures to:

  • tackle illegal trade in the tiger, rhinos and other species that are on the brink of extinction;
  • address the potential impacts of CITES measures on the livelihoods of the rural poor, who are often on the frontlines of using and managing wildlife;
  • and allocate sufficient financial resources to ensure that CITES goals are fully achieved.

“A substantial budget increase will be necessary to ensure proper implementation of the measures proposed for adoption in Doha, CITES said. The current annual budget of the CITES Secretariat is about U.S.$5 million.

“2010 is a key year for biological diversity. It is the year when the world was supposed to have reversed the rate of loss of our biodiversity—this has not happened,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which administers the CITES Secretariat.

“The international community must re-engage and renew its efforts to meet this goal. CITES is an important part of this response. By ensuring that the international trade in wildlife is properly regulated, CITES can assist in conserving the planet’s wild fauna and flora from overexploitation and thus contribute to the improved, sustainable management of these key natural assets,” Steiner said.

“The marine theme of this year’s CITES conference is particularly striking,” said CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers. “It confirms a trend that began in 2002. CITES is increasingly seen as a valuable tool to achieve the target of restoring depleted fish stocks by 2015 to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield, as agreed at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development.”


NGS painting of bluefin tuna by Stanley Meltzoff

Bluefin tuna and sharks

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the world’s capture (non-aquaculture) fisheries produced 92 million tonnes of fish in 2006, of which 81.9 million tonnes came from the sea, CITES said in today’s statement.

“The value of the total marine and freshwater catch at the first point of sale was around U.S.$91.2 billion. As a result, it is estimated that some 52 percent of marine fish stocks or species groups are fully exploited, 19 percent overexploited and 9 percent depleted or recovering from depletion.

“The maximum wild capture fishing potential from the world’s oceans has probably been reached, and a more closely controlled approach to fisheries is required.” 

“The maximum wild capture fishing potential from the world’s oceans has probably been reached, and a more closely controlled approach to fisheries is required,” CITES said.

“A growing number of commercially exploited fish have come under CITES controls in recent years, for example: the basking and whale sharks were included in Appendix II in 2002, the great white shark and the humphead wrasse in 2004, and the European eel and sawfishes in 2007.

“At the forthcoming conference, proposals will be made to bring eight commercially fished species under the purview of CITES.”

Monaco is proposing a complete ban on international commercial trade in the bluefin tuna.

“This iconic species can reach 3 meters in length and over 650 kilograms in weight. It can swim at nearly 40 kilometers per hour and dive to 1,000 meters deep,” the CITES statement said. “It is highly sought after as a delicacy: in January 2010, a single fish was reportedly sold for over U.S.$120,000.

“Although it has been fished for many centuries, its populations in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea have undergone very substantial declines in the last 40 years. Repeated efforts have been made to ensure more sustainable fishing, but now Monaco claims that it is time to bring the international trade to a halt to allow time for the species to recover.”

The scalloped hammerhead shark occurs widely in coastal warm temperate and tropical seas and is exploited extensively for its fins. Significant declines in the population of the species have been reported in many areas where it is caught, CITES said.

“Two other species of hammerhead shark (great hammerhead and smooth hammerhead) and two further sharks (sandbar shark and dusky shark) have similar shaped fins, and the proponents, Palau and the United States, recommend that all these species be subject to CITES trade controls.”


NGS stock photo by Robert Sisson

Palau and the U.S. are also proposing that trade CITES controls be applied to another shark, the oceanic whitetip, which, in spite of its wide range in tropical and subtropical waters, has declined in numbers wherever it has been harvested for its fins, CITES said.

In total, several million sharks of these two species are estimated to be fished annually to supply the demand for fins.

“The porbeagle shark has equally experienced population declines, notably in the northern Atlantic and the Mediterranean, owing to unsustainable fishing for its high-value meat and fins. Palau and Sweden, on behalf of the European Community, note the lack of consistent data on the global catch of this species. They argues that requiring CITES export permits will ensure that international markets are supplied by fish from sustainably managed fisheries that keep accurate records,” CITES said.

The spiny dogfish is a small shark that was once abundant in temperate waters. “It is now overexploited for its meat, which is highly valued in Europe (often sold in ‘fish and chips’ shops in the British Isles) and elsewhere,” CITES said.

Like many other sharks, the spiny dogfish “is particularly vulnerable to excessive fishing because of its slow reproductive rate,” CITES said. “It also tends to travel in large schools of hundreds or thousands, which are easier for fishing boats to harvest them in large quantities. Palau and Sweden, on behalf of the European Community, propose listing the spiny dogfish in Appendix II (which manages trade through a permit system) and establishing a sustainable fishery management program for the species.”


The most valuable of all the precious corals, red or pink corals, have been harvested for over 5,000 years and used for jewelry and other decorative items, CITES said. “Their treelike colonies provide protection and habitat for other marine species and occur in the tropical, subtropical and temperate oceans, often at great depths.

“Overharvesting for international trade and the destruction of colonies by bottom trawls and dredges have greatly affected their capacity to reproduce and regenerate.

“The United States and Sweden, on behalf of the European Community, propose adding the red or pink corals to Appendix II to control the trade therein.”

Elephants and ivory

The long-running global debate over the African elephant has focused on the benefits that income from ivory sales may bring to conservation and to local communities living side by side with these large and potentially dangerous animals versus concerns that such sales may encourage poaching, CITES said.

“This year’s proposals again reflect opposing views on how best to improve the conservation and sustainable use of the world’s largest land animal.”


NGS stock photo by Jodi Cobb

“CITES banned the international commercial ivory trade in 1989. In 1997 and 2002, recognizing that some southern African elephant populations were healthy and well managed, it permitted Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to sell some stocks of ivory to Japan totaling over 150 tons. The sales took place in 1999 and 2008 and earned some U.S.$20 million for elephant conservation and community development programs within or adjacent to the elephant range.

“At this year’s conference, Tanzania and Zambia are seeking similar approval to sell government-owned stocks that have accumulated over the years. Tanzania has nearly 90 tons of such stock, and Zambia just over 21 tons.

“Taking the opposite view, the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Rwanda and Sierra Leone are proposing a halt to the limited international trade in African elephant ivory currently permitted and a 20-year moratorium on any proposals to relax international trade controls on African elephants.”

Polar bears, crocodiles, bobcats


Photo by Scott Schliebe/USFWS

The potential threat to the polar bear from climate change has been much discussed recently, and the United States is seeking to increase its protection in CITES by completely prohibiting international commercial trade in the species, CITES said.


NGS stock photo of Nile crocodile by Chris Johns

Mexico and Egypt are seeking to reduce CITES controls on the Morelet’s crocodile and the Nile crocodile, respectively, as they believe that the status of these species in the wild has improved.

Honduras and Guatemala are seeking to apply CITES controls to four species of spiny-tailed iguanas that are increasingly sought by hobbyists in other countries.

Bolivia proposes that similar measures be adopted for the spectacular Satanas beetle, which is also sought by collectors.

Madagascar is seeking to include 12 endemic plants in Appendix II, while Brazil and Argentina propose the the same listing for the Brazilian rosewood and the Palo Santo, respectively, two tree species that produce essential oils extensively used in perfumery and cosmetics.


Bobcat photo courtesy of USFWS

Other proposals call for lifting all trade restrictions on certain species on the grounds that they no longer require such protection. These include the marsh rose and the Swartland sugarbush from South Africa, and the North American bobcat or lynx.

How CITES works

(From information provided by the CITES Secretariat)

Thousands of species of wild fauna and flora are used by people in their daily lives for food, housing, health care, cosmetics or fashion.

CITES recognizes that commercial trade in these plants and animals may be beneficial both to conservation and to the livelihoods of local people.

However, unregulated wildlife trade can seriously affect species populations, especially those that are already vulnerable as a result of other factors, such as habitat loss.

Governments responded to this concern by adopting CITES in 1973 to regulate international wildlife trade and ensure that it remains at a sustainable level. With 175 Parties, CITES remains one of the world’s most powerful tools for biodiversity conservation through the regulation of trade in wild fauna and flora.

Even setting aside commercial fishing and the timber industry, international trade in wildlife remains a very lucrative business, estimated to be worth billions of dollars annually and to involve more than 350 million plant and animal specimens every year. Unregulated international trade can push threatened and endangered species over the brink, especially when combined with habitat loss and other pressures.

CITES Appendices

CITES provides three regulatory options in the form of Appendices.

Animals and plants listed in Appendix I are prohibited from international commercial trade except in very special circumstances. Appendix I contains about 530 animal species and a little more than 300 plant species, including all the great apes, various big cats such as cheetahs, the snow leopard and the tiger, numerous birds of prey, cranes and pheasants, all sea turtles, many species of crocodiles, tortoises and snakes, and some cacti and orchids.

Commercial international trade is permitted for species listed in Appendix II, but it is strictly controlled on the basis of CITES permits. This Appendix II covers over 4,460 animal species and 28,000 plant species, including all those primates, cats, cetaceans, parrots, crocodiles and orchids not listed in Appendix I.

Finally, Appendix III includes species that are protected within the borders of a member country. By including a species in Appendix III, a country calls on others to help it regulate trade in the said species by making the issuance of a certificate of origin necessary to enter into trade. This Appendix lists over 290 species.

CITES, then, does much more than regulating trade in large charismatic mammals. It sets up a green certification system for non-detrimental wildlife trade (based on CITES permits and certificates), combats illegal trade and related wildlife offenses, promotes international cooperation, and helps establish management plans so that range States can monitor and manage sustainably CITES-listed species.

CITES requires each member State to adopt the necessary national legislation and to designate a Management Authority that issues permits to trade. Governments must also designate a Scientific Authority to provide scientific advice on imports and exports. These national authorities are responsible for implementing CITES in close cooperation with Customs, wildlife enforcement, police or similar agencies.

As the impact of trade on a population or a species increases or decreases, the species can be added to the CITES Appendices, transferred from one Appendix to another, or removed from them. These decisions are taken at the triennial CITES conferences and must be based on the best biological information available and on an analysis of how different types of protection can affect specific populations.

It is worth noting that when a species is transferred from Appendix I to Appendix II, its protection has not necessarily been ‘downgraded’. Rather, it can be a sign of success that a species population has grown to the point where trade may be possible with strict oversight. In addition, by allowing a species to be commercially traded at sustainable levels, an Appendix-II listing can actually improve protection by giving local people a greater incentive to ensure the species’ survival.

The CITES Secretariat produces recommendations on the proposals described above after analyzing them against the various listing criteria. These criteria relate to: trade (is the species being actively traded? Is trade really the problem rather than, say, habitat destruction?); biology (what is the scientific evidence that populations are declining or increasing?); and other technical matters (e.g. has the proponent consulted thoroughly other range States?).

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn