GENEVA - Every three years, there’s a global meeting to talk about the international wildlife trade—worth billions of dollars annually. At issue is an overarching question: How to balance this international commerce—which includes exotic pets, furs, and timber—without driving species to extinction.
The meetings are convened by the members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty enacted in 1975. (Learn more about the treaty here: CITES, explained.)
Among the matters the 183 members will address at the latest meeting—which runs from August 17 through August 28 in Geneva, Switzerland—are the future of the ivory trade, illegal killings of rhinos and the rhino horn trade, management of African elephant populations, and the booming exotic pet business.
A female eastern black rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) named Imara, at Great Plains Zoo in South Dakota.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK
During the final two days of the meeting – a time known officially as the plenary – almost all the decisions from earlier in the summit were approved. But one key issue was reopened and took up a large portion of the debate. Learn about that decision and its implications: African elephants can now rarely be caught in the wild and sent to faraway zoos.
-Dina Fine Maron
August 26 – Rosewood decision—new exemptions for musical instruments
Guitars and violins are often made with dense, tropical hardwood called rosewood, though the greatest demand for this wood is for traditional-style furniture in China. The world’s most trafficked wild product by value as well as by volume, rosewood is now listed under Appendix II of CITES.
Today the Conference of the Parties accepted a proposal from Canada and the European Union that would allow certain exemptions of rosewood use—including for finished musical instruments and component parts that contain rosewood, following the recommendation of a working group on this topic. Other finished rosewood products, such as small handicrafts weighing less than 10 kilograms per shipment, would also be exempt (that’s a change from an earlier proposal that had put the limit at 500 grams per item).
Charles Barber, the director of the forest legality initiative for the nonprofit World Resources Institute and a member of the rosewood working group, said, “The exemption for finished musical instruments is a common-sense measure that rectifies a key implementation barrier for the otherwise essential rosewood listing decided at COP-17 in October 2016.”
Barber explains, that with the change, “Rosewood raw material that goes into instruments remains regulated under CITES, but once it is transformed into a finished musical instrument, it will no longer need CITES documentation. This removes a major administrative burden on CITES authorities that did not have any substantive conservation impact. The driver of the illegal and unsustainable global rosewood boom is the China-based hongmu replica antique furniture industry, and this is where the focus of CITES regulation and implementation should [be].”
-Dina Fine Maron
August 26 – More than a third of the proposals at this CITES summit relate to amphibians and reptiles threatened by the exotic pet industry—and most will now have new protections
Almost 20 amphibian and reptile proposals considered today—including one to increase regulations protecting the Union Island gecko and controversial proposals for the tokay gecko and Indian star tortoise—stemmed from concerns over the burgeoning appetite for the exotic pet industry.
They all passed, with two exceptions—a proposal that was withdrawn before any debate and another that sought to list the more than 100 species of glass frogs, which failed to get the required two-thirds majority.
Amphibians and reptiles are often popular as pets for their attractive colouring or rarity. The proposal today to list a shy Caribbean lizard called the Union Island gecko on Appendix I, a designation that would ban all international commercial trade, was accepted by consensus with no objections.
This little lizard (sometimes known as the Grenadines clawed gecko) was discovered in 2005, yet poachers soon smuggled so many from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines for the exotic pet industry that local officials and herpetologists abroad became concerned. There are now estimated to be no more than 10,000 of them left—an 80 per cent loss in the wild, according to a representative for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Separately, the tokay gecko—poached for both the exotic pet trade and for wide use to combat various maladies in traditional Chinese medicine—netted an Appendix II listing today, with a vote of 103 in favour, 17 opposed, and 18 abstentions. That listing means the trade in the species will still be allowed, but only with proper paperwork. The lizard, which lives throughout Southeast Asia, is one of the world’s largest geckos—sometimes reaching 38 centimetres long. China objected to the listing.
The tokay protection proposal had been brought by the European Union, India, the Philippines, and the United States. The U.S., a top destination for them as pets, said tokays taken from the wild are often falsely claimed to have been captive bred and that the new listing will help in monitoring and regulating their trade to protect them from a slide toward extinction.
The Indian Star Tortoise, which received approval for an Appendix I listing today, has no known captive breeding facilities and is heavily poached for the exotic pet industry. The species lives only in three countries (India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka), and Sri Lanka said it’s “critical” to give it immediate Appendix I protections, which would ban all international commercial trade. The EU, which supported the proposal, said that tens of thousands of Indian star tortoises are taken for the illegal trade each year.
Glass frogs—the only proposed species in this block that failed to get new protections—are popular among collectors in the EU and the U.S. because of their unique appearance: Their internal organs are visible through their skin.
Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras had proposed putting all 104 species of glass frogs on Appendix II. They wanted all species to be regulated in case protecting one type of glass frog led to increased poaching of other lookalike species that hadn’t previously been in demand. In addition to losses from poaching, many species are being undermined by habitat loss. The effort just failed to garner a two-thirds majority, with 75 in favour, 40 opposed, and 11 abstentions.
Of the raft of new amphibian and reptile protections, Jordi Janssen, a program officer with Monitor, a British Columbia-based organization dedicated to combating illegal wildlife trade, said, “For many of these species, their listing on the CITES appendices will result in much-needed monitoring and regulation of the international trade. For example, the tokay gecko is traded in the millions every year. If trade is not monitored, we might only find out if trade is threatened its survival after it’s already too late. We therefore need these mechanisms to keep a finger on the pulse and ensure trade is not at threat to these species.”
South Africa noted during comments on a proposal to list the Grandidier's Madagascar Ground Gecko in Appendix II (which passed by consensus) that CITES listing decisions alone won’t go far enough to solve the exotic pet trade problems. To truly safeguard species, South Africa suggested, programs to change attitudes and behaviour are needed.
-Dina Fine Maron
August 26 – Woolly mammoths will not be treated as endangered after all
A controversial proposal to list woolly mammoth as a regulated species under CITES has been officially withdrawn after it looked unlikely to pass. If the bid had passed muster with the Conference of the Parties, it would have been the lone example of an extinct animal being treated as an endangered species.
The proposal, put forward by Israel, was intended to enhance protection of elephants from the illegal ivory trade, because carved mammoth ivory is largely indistinguishable from that of elephants. The trade in mammoth ivory—sometimes known as ice ivory—has grown in recent years as permafrost in Siberia has melted, making the remains of these long extinct animals more accessible. (For more context on today’s decision, and details about the mammoth ivory trade, read: Woolly mammoths are extinct. Here’s why they may be considered ‘endangered.’)
Neither the scale of the mammoth ivory trade nor the rate of mislabeling elephant ivory as mammoth is well documented, and Israel had hoped to get a clearer picture with an Appendix II listing for woolly mammoth products since the listing would have required proper paperwork for any trade in mammoth ivory.
Russia, the main exporter of mammoth ivory, opposed the proposition. Representatives from Canada, the United States, and the European Union also objected, saying there’s insufficient evidence that an Appendix II listing would help elephants and a lack of data establishing that mislabeling elephant ivory has become a significant problem. In addition, Canada and the U.S. said that the listing would put a significant burden on law enforcement and exporters.
In place of its original proposal, Israel ultimately offered an alternative. It asked for a study on the trade in mammoth ivory and its contribution to the illegal trade in elephant ivory and elephant poaching. That proposal passed by consensus.
Shira Yashphe, a member of Israel’s CITES delegation, said they hope to get the study’s results in time for a CITES panel meeting next spring or summer, leading to a reopened, and informed, discussion at the next Conference of the Parties, three years from now. The study would be conducted by an external group, yet to be determined, and will require funding by CITES members and NGOs.
All decisions must still be finalised by the plenary and will not be reopened for discussion unless one-third of CITES members request reconsideration.
--Dina Fine Maron
August 26 – Vote on Asian small-clawed otter passes with 86 per cent approval
The world’s smallest otter—the Asian small-clawed otter—gained new protections in a vote today that, if confirmed by the plenary, will ban all international commercial trade.
The animal was once widespread in Southeast Asia, but poaching and wetland habitat loss have contributed to a population decline of more than 30 per cent during the past three decades, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which sets the status of endangered species of animals and plants.
India, Nepal, and the Philippines proposed moving the otter from Appendix II to Appendix I—which would ban all international commercial trade—but Indonesia said yesterday that uplisting the species was inappropriate because it believes that trade in the animal for its pelt, for traditional medicine, and for the exotic pet industry has been mainly from captive-bred, not wild-caught otters. Indonesia instead suggested setting a zero quota for exports of wild-caught Asian small-clawed otters.
Nepal, India, and the Philippines declined this alternative suggestion after considering it overnight, but it was voted on today in accordance with convention rules. It failed, with 79 opposed, 30 in favour, and 22 abstentions.
The original proposal—to add the species to Appendix I—passed with 86 per cent of the vote— 98 votes in favour, 16 opposed, and 14 abstentions.
“The #cuteotters craze on social media is driving small-clawed and other otters to extinction,” says Paul Todd, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “People must realize every ‘like’ on an Instagram post of otters in a café or in someone’s living room could mean an otter family group was killed so the pups could be taken for trade. Wild otters won’t last long this way, but today’s decision will help.”
The Asian small-clawed otter listing decision, like all CITES committee decisions, must still be finalized by the plenary, which begins proceedings tomorrow.
-Dina Fine Maron
August 25—Southern white rhinos
Read the latest on the decisions against decreasing protections for southern white rhinos in eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) and Namibia: Proposal to open up rhino trade rejected.
August 25 – Otter protection debate continues even as one species gains new protection
The growing interest in otters as an exotic pet propelled discussions about two proposals to move the Asian small-clawed otter and the smooth-coated otter from Appendix II to Appendix I of CITES—changes that would end all legal international trade in the animals.
Yet in a surprise move today, Indonesia argued that the Asian small-clawed otter trade largely comes from captive-breeding so it opposes the proposal, suggesting instead an amendment that would create a zero quota for commerce in wild-caught Asian small-clawed otters. Instead of voting on the proposal, Indonesia will now meet overnight with the three sponsors of the original proposal—India, Nepal, and the Philippines—and the issue will be discussed further tomorrow.
The vote on banning all international trade of smooth-coated otters did go to a vote and passed with 102 for, 15 against, and 11 abstentions. All trade of smooth-coated otters will now be banned, assuming this decision is confirmed by the plenary.
“Although the levels and impact of international trade on this otter’s populations are poorly known, the decision to list the smooth-coated otter in appendix I could spur enforcement efforts,” Kanitha Krishnasamy, the director of the Southeast Asia division of the wildlife monitoring group Traffic, said in a statement. The move will give governments a needed foundation to investigate any claims of captive-breeding operations and to prevent illegal trade and laundering of wild caught otters, Krishnasamy said.
Most Southeast Asian countries have enacted their own laws banning the capture, sale, possession, and transport of the creatures, but a black market for both otters continues to thrive. They’re caught for their pelts, for use in traditional medicine, and, increasingly, for sale as pets.
Currently, the hairy-nosed otter is listed on Appendix II of the treaty, and another species, the Eurasian otter, has been on Appendix I since 1977.
-Dina Fine Maron
August 25—Mako sharks
Read the latest on the decision to list both species of mako shark under Appendix II: Mako sharks get new protections from trade.
August 23 – Elephants and ivory
Read about the latest big elephant and ivory decisions: Proposals to strengthen elephant protections and reopen ivory sales come to a head at global wildlife treaty meeting.
-Dina Fine Maron
August 22 – Saiga antelope receives new protection
The saiga antelope, a Central Asian animal listed as critically endangered since 2002, didn’t net enough votes today to move to CITES Appendix I—a designation that would prohibit any international trade in the species. They will still be listed under Appendix II, which allows trade with proper paperwork.
Found in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Russia, saiga are poached for their horn, coveted for traditional medicine use in China and elsewhere. Saiga also have suffered in recent years from disease and extreme weather.
Today’s vote, however, resulted in one change to the saiga’s protections: An annotation was added placing the quota for international commercial trade in wild-caught saiga at zero. With minimal captive breeding of saiga, this change effectively would eliminate any trade in saiga horn. (The vote still needs to be finalised at the plenary.)
The annotation is a “step in the right direction” that will “hopefully galvanize more attention on the need for enhanced enforcement in consumer countries,” says Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Still, she notes, “I am concerned that some horn could get misidentified as captive bred, but there is a CITES process to deal with that.”
-Dina Fine Maron
August 22—Increased protections for giraffes
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), giraffe populations have declined up to 40 per cent during the past three decades, largely because of habitat loss and fragmentation.
Parties today voted to adopt a proposal to restrict trade in giraffes, hunted for their skin, meat, bones, and tails. Several African countries proposed that giraffes, listed by the IUCN as vulnerable, be moved to Appendix II under CITES. This would restrict allowable exports to giraffes that had been hunted legally, as long as those hunts wouldn’t compromise the survival of the species. This decision will be finalised at plenary at the end of Conference of the Parties.
Evidence of genetic differences among giraffes has emerged in recent years, suggesting that there are actually four species rather than a single species and nine subspecies as had long been thought. (Read more about how Masai giraffes were recently declared endangered.)
“This is wonderful news for giraffes, and we’re grateful for the U.S.’s and all the international support for everyone’s favourite long-necked mammal,” says Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With fewer giraffes than elephants in Africa, it was a no-brainer to simply regulate giraffe exports.”
August 21 – Domestic ivory markets will remain open
This afternoon in Geneva, a proposal calling for the closure of all domestic ivory markets was voted down. Instead, the Conference of the Parties called for countries to report back about their domestic ivory market plans by the next Standing Committee meeting, which will likely take place in the spring or summer of 2020.
Although most of the CITES proposals on the elephant ivory trade are focused on international commerce, conservation groups and dozens of country representatives have argued that domestic ivory markets create opportunities for laundering ivory.
The proposal to call for domestic market closures had been brought forward by a coalition of mostly African nations that included Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, and the Syrian Arab Republic. The decision could still be reconsidered at the plenary next week, but was decided by consensus so it is unlikely to be brought back.
While the United States, United Kingdom, and China have closed their domestic ivory markets in recent years, Japan and the EU have faced criticism for keeping theirs open. (Some EU nations, including France and Luxembourg, however, have banned domestic trade.) Japan’s domestic ivory market has been described by the wildlife monitoring group Traffic as “one of the largest in the world.”
“Legal ivory markets and a lack of action against large illegal markets in certain countries continue to provide opportunities for criminal syndicates to traffic ivory,” Matt Collis, head of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s delegation to CITES, said in a statement following the vote. “We urge countries whose legal domestic markets remain open, particularly Japan and the EU, to close them as a matter of urgency, and hope they will be in a position to report back on such steps at the next CITES conference.”
-Dina Fine Maron
August 20—Black rhino trophy hunting in South Africa
Parties have voted to allow South Africa to increase its annual export quota for black rhino hunting trophies. The current quota allows for five adult male trophies, but the new quota will allow a number not exceeding half a per cent of the country’s total black rhino population—a maximum of about 10 animals. Adult males will be targeted to protect breeding females.
South Africa argued that the money raised from trophy hunting helps support conservation. Black rhinos are threatened by poaching, but according to the conservation nonprofit Save the Rhino, populations in the country increased from about 800 in 1992 to more than 2,000 by the end of 2017.
Botswana, Zimbabwe, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), the EU, and Canada also supported the measure.
This matter must now be confirmed or rejected at the plenary, at the end of the Conference of the Parties, when all appendix change proposals, resolutions, and decisions passed in committee are officially adopted.
August 18—Export of live, wild-caught elephants
In a surprise early vote, parties voted in committee to amend a resolution to limit the trade in live, wild-caught African elephants to range countries only. This issue has received international attention following the shipment of young elephants from Zimbabwe to China in 2015 and from eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) to U.S. zoos in 2016.
Zimbabwe, the U.S., and the European Union spoke against the move. "Live sales are part of our management tools," the Zimbabwe delegate said, and those sales raise funds for conservation.
Kenya, Niger, and Burkina Faso spoke in support of it. "We all agree these are intelligent creatures with complex social links," the Burkina Faso delegate said of elephants, arguing that they cannot thrive in captivity.
The European Union, which acts as a bloc but has 28 individual votes, asked for the vote to be postponed, but the chair rejected the call.
There were 46 yes votes and 18 no votes, with the European Union neither voting nor abstaining. Had they voted no, the resolution would not have passed. The proposal must now be confirmed or rejected at the plenary, which comes at the end of the Conference of Parties (CoP) and is where all appendix change proposals, resolutions, and decisions passed in committee are officially adopted. While many elephant campaigners were pleased at the show of support, they are concerned that the debate could be reopened at the plenary and that the EU parties would vote no, reversing today's approval.