What to Expect at CITES: A Sneak Peak at Upcoming Endangered Species Meeting

Even for experienced eyes, sifting through the roughly 200 documents to be considered at the upcoming Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) 17th Conference of Parties (CoP17) is a challenge.

CITES protects about 5,600 animal species and 30,000 plant species through restrictions on commercial trade, and much discussion at the meeting, to be held September 24 to October 5 in Johannesburg, South Africa, will concentrate on whether to tighten or loosen trade restrictions for specific species.

There are 62 such proposals, which would affect close to 500 species, ranging from tropical timbers like rosewood and agarwood to marine species like corals, nautiluses, sharks, and rays to iconic mammals like African elephants and lions, and lesser known ones like pangolins, as well as a host of reptiles and amphibians.

Delegates from the 183 parties to the treaty will review assessments on the threats from trade and then decide whether or not to include the proposed animals and plants in one of three appendices, each with a differing level of protection. The most stringent, Appendix I, prohibits commercial trade in wild-taken species, not ones bred in captivity or propagated artificially. The next level is Appendix II, which limits trade through permits. Appendix III provides international support to help a country enforce its national controls.

Another category of issues to be discussed are the various measures to reduce illegal trade by changing the way trade is managed, such as recognizing the link between corruption and wildlife crime, establishing systems to stop wild-caught animals from mixing with captive-bred ones in the trade, and developing a photo identification database to identify seized tiger skins.

Here are some items to watch:

  • First up are a number of proposals related to African elephants. Expected to be contentious, they will likely take up a good portion of energy at the meeting. The most publicized are three listing proposals, but also on the agenda are proposals to regulate trade in mammoth ivory, destroy ivory stockpiles, close legal domestic ivory markets, target ivory demand reduction strategies, restrict the use of live animal exports, and create a decision-making mechanism for a future ivory trade.

1397081_10151875462558370_1182142026_oCurrently, all African elephants are included in Appendix I, except for those in four countries: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—which are included in Appendix II. Despite that designation, an annotation to the listing keeps their ivory in Appendix I, which bans its sale. (It is interesting to note that that same annotation allowed two ivory sales from those four countries on the condition that they not propose any additional commercial ivory sales until 2017.)

Two of the proposals seek to remove the annotation for Namibia and Zimbabwe so that their elephants can have “straight-up” Appendix II listing, which in turn could allow more ivory sales. A third proposal takes the opposite approach, and seeks to move the populations of the four countries to Appendix I, thereby removing the need for the annotation and maintaining the existing ban on international trade in ivory. The catch is that even if this last proposal is adopted, a country can “enter a reservation” (which it can do with any species listing), allowing it to reject the listing while not violating the entire treaty.

Also controversial are two proposals related to an ivory decision-making mechanism. In 2007, CITES began thinking about how to set rules for the future authorization of ivory trading. The idea was to have criteria that applied to all requests rather than having to make decisions on a country-by-country basis. Work on that mechanism was supposed to be completed by 2013, but disagreements led to an extension of the deadline until this CITES meeting. But a persistent lack of progress and agreement has prompted eight African countries to propose that the entire idea be dropped, which Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe don’t want. They propose adoption of a mechanism and say that if one is not adopted, they will consider the annotation (that keeps their ivory in Appendix I) as pro non scripto, meaning “as though it had not been written”—in effect opening up trade.

  • Also sure to spark interest is the continued shift toward using CITES to regulate commercially valuable timber, as embodied in five proposals on rosewood (Dalbergia) that could affect about 250 species. One of the proposals wants to list all the species in that genus under Appendix II (except for those already in Appendix I), and the four others focus on various subsets of the species, such as one for 13 species native to Mexico and Central America.
  • Sharks and rays will also be considered. High demand for gill plates has led to a proposal to include all devil rays (Mobula) in Appendix II. Two additional proposals seek Appendix II listings for silky and thresher sharks. But the road forward for these shark species will likely be bumpy, especially when compared to the listing of five shark species at the last CoP, largely because questions remain as to whether silky and thresher sharks meet the criteria for inclusion.
  • Following the IUCN Red List’s 2016 assessment that all pangolin species are critically endangered, range states seek to give all pangolin species the highest level of protection. Arguably the most trafficked mammal, five proposals (two on Indian pangolins, one on Philippine pangolins, one on Chinese and Sunda pangolins, and one on all four African species) seek to transfer these scaly anteaters from Appendix II to Appendix I.
  • African lions are also on the agenda. A drop in populations prompted nine African states to propose their transfer from Appendix II to Appendix I to ban all trade in African lions and their parts. In addition, there are a couple of other proposals related to regulation on the harvest and export of lion hunting trophies.
  • 1404779_10151875462553370_930461390_oHeated debate surrounding legalizing rhino horn trade will likely be spurred by several side events and by Swaziland’s proposal to alter its listing for its rhinoceros populations so that it could sell horn from natural deaths, seizures, and non-lethal harvests. Other rhino-related measures seek to add strong new provisions on fake horn, increase penalties to deter killing and trafficking, encourage data sharing on rhino horn seizures, systematize sample collection for forensic analysis of horn, implement stricter domestic controls to regulate the re-export of rhino horn, and account for and secure rhino horn stocks.
  • African grey parrots are another species to watch. Highly sought after as pets for their intelligence, these parrots have experienced significant declines across their range in central and West Africa. A proposal sponsored by nine countries asks to transfer the species to Appendix I in order to stop the unsustainable commercial trade in these wild birds.

The above represent just a fraction of a very full agenda at CoP 17, and numerous other items up for consideration will have a critical impact for years to come. Little wonder that CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon has described it as “one of the most critical meetings in the 43 year history of the Convention.”

We will keep tabs on the proceedings and post regular updates from Johannesburg here.

Laurel Neme is a freelance journalist and author of Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species and Orangutan Houdini. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The National Geographic Special Investigations Unit (SIU) is dedicated to shining light on commercial-scale exploitation of wildlife and other valued resources, identifying weaknesses in national and international efforts to protect wildlife, and empowering institutions and individuals working for a better world. Stories cover a range of human activity, from crime to heroism.

You can find all of the SIU’s stories at Wildlife Watch. Click here to meet the team.

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Meet the Author
Laurel Neme is the author of ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species, a narrative non-fiction “CSI for wildlife” with a foreword by Richard Leakey and endorsed by Jane Goodall that's been featured on ABC News Nightline and NPR’s Science Friday. She is also the author of the children's book, ORANGUTAN HOUDINI, based on a true story of an ape who outwits his zookeeper. She has hosted The WildLife radio show and addressed a range of groups on wildlife forensics and trafficking, and animal intelligence, including INTERPOL’s Wildlife Crime Working Group, the St. Louis Zoo, American Museum of Natural History, universities, school groups and libraries. Previously, she worked on natural resource and wildlife management as both a government officer and international consultant in dozens of countries around the world, helping her understand the real-life tradeoffs between wildlife protection and human economic needs. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan and PhD from Princeton University. See Laurel Neme's website for more.