A victory for wildlife
The latest meeting of CITES has pledged to conserve the last remaining populations of wild species threatened by illegal international trade
A number of landmark decisions on protecting different wild species were taken at the recently concluded CITES CoP in Johannesburg
THECONFERENCE has been a game changer that will be remembered as a point in history when the tide turned in favour of ensuring the survival of our most vulnerable wildlife, said John E Scanlon, Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ( cites) as its 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP 17) drew to a closure in Johannesburg on October 5. The meeting saw key decisions taken on species that were hitherto not in the limelight.
While charismatic species, such as lions and elephants, fancied by wildlife traders continued to dominate debates at the CoP 17, lesser-known species like pangolins, helmeted hornbill and rosewood, which were not in the forefront at previous CoPs, were also discussed at length and the parties agreed to drastic motions to conserve their remaining populations.
In total, 152 countries took decision on 62 proposals submitted for upgrading the protection status of species in the appendi- ces of cites. Parties accepted 51 of the proposals and rejected five, while the remaining were withdrawn.
Pangolins get star protection
One of the most celebrated decisions at the CoP 17 was to list all the eight species of pangolins on Appendix I, which offers the maximum protection to a species and prohibits its commercial trade. Two of these endangered species are endemic to India.
The decision was taken in view of sudden spurt in the illegal trade of the world’s most poached mammal. Over a million pangolins have been trafficked illegally from the wild in the past decade to feed the demands from China and Vietnam. Its meat is considered a delicacy, while pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine as they are believed to treat a range of ailments from asthma to rheumatism and arthritis.
Hailing the move at CoP 17, Ginette Hemley, World Wide Fund for Nature’s head of delegation to the conference, said,
“This is a huge win... for some of the world’s most trafficked and endangered animals. Giving pangolins full protection under cites will eliminate any question about legality of trade, making it harder for criminals to traffic them and increasing the consequences for those who do.” However, Hemley cautioned, “We need to strengthen anti-poaching and anti-trafficking efforts, and continue to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products in countries like China and Vietnam.”
Status quo in big species club
Unlike previous CoPs, the traditional favourites of conservationists failed to impress the Parties this time.
Elephant poaching for ivory, for instance, have always been high on the agenda of cites, and CoP 17 was no different. During the conference, some African nations, including Namibia and Zimbabwe, demanded the rights to sell their ivory stockpiles accrued from natural deaths of the animal and poaching seizures. The proceeds from the sales, they argued, would be used to fund wildlife conservation projects. Japan and Hong Kong, which are the final markets for ivory, supported this demand. But the Parties shot down the demand, putting a ban on the domestic ivory trade.
As the domestic ivory markets remain closed, it will prevent further laundering of illegal ivory through legal systems, says Susan Lieberman, vice-president of the International Policy at Wildlife Conservation Society. However, the decision was not perfect. All ivory markets contribute to illegal trade and poaching. There will be increased focus on countries that are a problem for ivory trafficking, particularly importing countries—and they will be pressured to close their markets, she adds.
The CoP also saw Swaziland proposing that it be allowed to sell its 300 kg of rhino horn from existing stockpiles as well as another 20 kg that it harvests every year. The delegates claimed that the proceeds from the sales would be used in anti-poaching and rhino conservation. The proposal was rejected by the cites members with conservationists arguing that a legal trade in rhino horn would provide a mechanism for laundering yet more horn from poached rhinos into the trade.
Conservationists, however, were disappointed when the Parties voted not to ban commercial trade in African lion parts. Furthermore, conservationists were anticipating that the lions be upgraded from Appendix II to Appendix I, but it was overruled. Instead, the Parties sought establishing a “zero annual export quota” for bones, claws and teeth removed from the dead carcasses of wild African lions. South Africa will be obliged to establish annual export quotas for trade in lion parts from its captive breeding operations and report to cites each year, as it is the only country that trades in parts of captive-bred lions.
Conservationists warn that the legal market for the parts of captive-bred South African lions could provide incentives for poachers to launder bones of wild lions. The move particularly puts Asiatic lions found in India at peril. Lion bones are highly sought-after in Asia for use in traditional medicines and as a substitute for the bones of tigers. Since Asian lion parts are not easily distinguishable from those of its African counterparts without a dna analysis, wildlife biologists say poachers will target Asiatic lions. “Less than 20,000 lions are now left in the wild. Yet, the parties only agreed to the absolute minimum steps to protect them,” said Masha Kalinina, international trade policy specialist with Humane Society International, usa.
Then there are others who view the conference as a major success for wildlife conservation. “Science and wildlife conservation prevailed at cites CoP17,” says Lieberman. “The decisions made by the gathering countries were based on the best available scientific information. Further, we were encouraged that governments fully embraced the precautionary principle by making decisions in the best interest of the species in the wild. After attending 11 CoPs, I strongly believe this was among the most successful CoPs ever for wildlife,” she adds.
With cross-border wildlife trade estimated at US $19 billion a year and legal trade at $300 billion a year, there is a growing need for protecting endangered species. “Illegal trade of everything from helmeted hornbill to the hundreds of species of rosewood severely damages our planet, and it’s only through the international cooperation we have seen under cites that we can prevent it,” says Erik Solheim, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme. Scanlon says cites is now an indispensable tool for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. For now, the conservationists can celebrate the success of cites CoP17 with optimism for future.
The CITES Secretariat team at CoP17