World Wildlife Convention Kicks Off in Johannesburg

A southern white rhino roams Pilanesberg National Park. Photo: Creative Commons, Prosthetic Head.
A southern white rhino roams Pilanesberg National Park. Photo: Creative Commons, Prosthetic Head.

One of the world’s most important conservation events kicked off today in Johannesburg, South Africa—the triennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), the international treaty that regulates the wildlife trade.

Every three years CITES representatives meet to vote on proposals to restrict or loosen trade in plants and animals. There are about 500 species of plants and animals up for discussion this year, from African elephants to pangolins, cat-sized scaly creatures found in Africa and Asia. My colleague Rachael Bale and I are here at the convention to give you the scoop each day on this blog, Voices for Wildlife.

This year’s conference has the most attendees and a record-breaking number of proposals on the agenda, said John Scanlon, secretary-general of CITES, at the opening ceremony. More than 3,000 people have signed up to attend the event.

According to him, the interest in the conference signifies a broader trend of attention placed on the illegal wildlife trade, a black market valued in the tens of billions. Political will to tackle the trade is exemplified by events over the past couple of years including the United Nations adopting a resolution to fight wildlife trafficking and China pledging to shut down its domestic elephant ivory market, which contributes to the slaughter of some 27,000 of the animals each year.

Scanlon said that the world has made significant progress in tackling the illegal wildlife trade—but there’s still a lot of work to do. “While more needs to be done, we are clearly on the right track,” he said.

Proposals relating to elephants, rhinos, and pangolins rank high on the agenda, he said. But he noted that we can’t forget about the lesser-known species such as the psychedelic rock gecko, a rare reptile in demand for the pet trade.

Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environmental Programme, said that we must also deal with factors contributing to wildlife poaching and habitat loss, such as a lack of renewable energy. “It’s hard to stop the woman chopping down wood just to get the fuel to heat her family’s food,” he explained.

With controversial proposals on the agenda, such as legalizing the trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory, debate in the coming days should be fierce. As Scanlon puts it: “Rugby is a full contact sport. People play hard and they play to win. Sounds a lot like CITES, right?”

Changing Planet