Elephants, rhinos, African grey parrots, & pangolins among the species whose fates are on the block
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa––The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) seventeenth triennial Conference of Parties (CoP 17) on October 2, 2016 adopted a resolution of elephant-sized importance to elephants worldwide, more than 140,000 of whom have been poached in the past 10 years.
Understanding what the resolution is and why it matters, though, requires translating a great deal of international diplomatic legalese into plain English.
Arm of United Nations
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, usually called simply CITES, is a treaty brokered by the United Nations in 1975 to regulate global traffic in animal and plant products.
CITES CoP 17, in the jargon of international wildlife protection, is the seventeenth triennial conference of signers of the CITES treaty.
Few international treaty organizations include more nations than CITES, which now has 183 members, only 10 fewer than the United Nations itself. Each CITES member nation has one vote on proposals brought before the delegates.
Advisory body to governments
In effect, CITES is an advisory body to governments worldwide. CITES resolutions represent global political opinion as to what species may be bought and sold across international boundaries. But CITES has no direct law enforcement authority. Actual enforcement of CITES recommendations is left up to individual national governments––but national governments that ignore CITES recommendations run the risk of running out of other scofflaw nations to trade with.
The all-important appendices
Based on scientific advice about species abundance and survival prospects furnished by the wildlife agencies of member states, CITES divides the natural world into four categories: unregulated species; Appendix III species, for which trade monitoring is required; Appendix II species, for which limited trade is allowed, by permit; and Appendix I species, for which no commercial trade is allowed. CITES Appendix II is in effect an international list of “threatened” species; Appendix I is the international endangered species list.
Moving species up to Appendix I means the CITES member nations are expected to do everything possible to prevent trafficking which has put those species at risk of extinction. Downlisting species from Appendix I to Appendix II, or even Appendix III, means that those species appear to be recovering or recovered. Uplisting species from Appendix III to Appendix II means that the species appear to be in trouble, but perhaps can be protected by regulation of traffic rather than outright prohibition.
Conferences of Parties are held every three years, rotating among host member nations, to review the listing status of species on the various Appendices. CITES CoP 17, hosted in Johannesburg, South Africa, is reviewing the status of at least five species of special significance to South Africa, including elephants, rhinos, African grey parrots, pangolins, and Cape Mountain zebras.
The October 2, 2016 CITES CoP 17 resolution on behalf of elephants, an Appendix I species since 1989, “recommends that all Parties and non-Parties in whose jurisdiction there is a legal domestic market for ivory that is contributing to poaching or illegal trade, take all necessary legislative, regulatory and enforcement measures to close their domestic markets for commercial trade in raw and worked ivory as a matter of urgency.”
What that means is that the CITES member nations have now agreed that every nation should take steps toward ending poaching pressure on elephants that the U.S. took on June 2, 2016 and China announced it would take soon thereafter.
CITES members in 1989 agreed to end international trade in live elephants, elephant products, and elephant byproducts, except for allowing Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to sell accumulated ivory stockpiles to Japan and China in 1999 and 2008.
But CITES in 1989 and until now did not recommend that nations should forbid internal trade in ivory which had at some point been imported legally. This enabled ivory traffickers to continue selling smuggled ivory items, whose age and date of import could no longer be established once the ivory was carved into works of art, signature stamps, piano keys, knife handles, letter openers, combs, and guitar picks, among other ivory items commonly found in upscale stores.
Because ivory could still be sold, once brought into a CITES member nation, demand for ivory products could still be cultivated by sellers––and rebounded in many nations after the international sales allowed in 1999 and 2008 provided additional cover for misrepresenting poached and trafficked ivory as having been legally imported.
More on elephants to come
CITES CoP 17 is not done discussing elephants. Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia are again seeking permission to sell ivory. Zimbabwe officially claims 82,000 elephants; independent observers believe Zimbabwe may have half as many. South Africa has about 27,000 elephants; Namibia, about 20,000.
Opposing them, the 29-member African Elephant Coalition, including about 70% of the African nations that still have elephants, is seeking a total halt to any and all ivory trading.
Meeting just before CITES CoP 17, the 1,200-member International Union for the Conservation of Nature recommended against authorizing a renewed legal ivory trade. The IUCN also recommended that CITES member nations should stop all international ivory sales, as did CITES CoP 17 a week later.
Formed in 1948, the IUCN represents a variety of government agencies, scientific bodies, and advocacy organizations. Like CITES, the IUCN suggests policy to national governments, but has no mechanism for enforcing policy recommendations.
$23 billion a year
Ivory is only one of the best-known wildlife products regulated by CITES. Explained Nick Davies and Oliver Holmes of The Guardian, as the 12-day CITES CoP 17 conference got underway on September 27, “Illegal trade in wildlife is highly destructive, threatening the extinction of some of the world’s most iconic species. At every stage in the supply lines, the systems that are supposed to defend the animals against this global butchery are no match for the organized crime groups that dominate the trade.
“This is a vast business,” Davies and Oliver summarized, “valued by the United Nations Environment Program at $23 billion a year – twice the gross domestic product of poached countries such as Tanzania or Kenya. This is profit-hungry global crime conducted by some of the same ruthless and violent groups that traffic drugs and guns.
“Inextricably linked with power”
“This trade has been allowed to grow,” Davies and Oliver said, “not only because of the failure of law enforcement, but because it is inextricably linked with power. The wealthy elite that consumes illegal animal products overlaps with the political elite, and the commercial elite. The criminal entrepreneurs who run the supply lines are able to conceal their identity behind front companies, and hide their enormous profits by using the same secretive offshore jurisdictions exploited for tax avoidance by multinational corporations.”
Even when CITES recommendations are mostly met, the University of Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and World Animal Protection reported on the eve of CITES CoP 17, the outcomes may be less than satisfactory for wildlife, through inattention to what goes on within member nations as well as at international borders.
Gap in data
According to the CITES trade data base, more than 64,000 live wild animals were officially reported as seized by wildlife enforcement agencies between 2011 and 2014, but no data was collected about the fate of more than 60,000 of the animals, meaning that they might have been recycled right back into the international wildlife traffic.
The CITES trade data base meanwhile received data from only 30% of the CITES member nations, a hint that as much as 70% of the total global commerce in listed species might have gone undocumented.
500 species under review
CITES CoP 17, according to CITES secretary general John Scanlon, is to “review trade controls on close to 500 species of wild animals and plants.”
Among iconic species whose fate is under consideration, besides elephants, are rhinos, pangolins, African grey parrots, and sharks.
But by far the most numerous species under review by CITES CoP 17 delegates are trees. CITES barely envisioned regulating timber trafficking 40 years ago, but intensified rainforest and dryland logging since then has resulted in more than 600 trees being added to the various CITES appendices. The status of about 250 tree species is now up for consideration or re-consideration.
As with elephant ivory, CITES CoP 17 delegates are divided between advocates for legal commerce in rhino horn, on the theory that selling rhino horn openly might discourage poaching and trafficking, and others, the majority, who believe that allowing any commerce can provide cover for more poaching and trafficking.
Poachers have killed more than 5,000 rhino since 2008, mostly in South Africa, which still claims more than 80% of the global white rhino population, and is the leading international voice for reinstituting regulated trade in rhino horn.
Killing poachers hasn’t helped
The South African government estimates that about 7,500 poachers entered Kruger National Park alone in 2015, resulting in 137 firefights between poachers and rangers trying to stop them. Two rangers, seven soldiers, and 150 to 200 poachers were killed in 2015.
But the shooting does not appear to have done much to stop the crime.
Of 928 rhinos poached in 2015, only 61 alleged poachers were actually prosecuted, resulting in just 29 convictions.
African grey parrots
South Africa, the world leader breeding and exporting African grey parrots, is also the leading voice in opposition to uplisting the parrots from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I.
About 22,000 South Africans are employed in parrot breeding, producing circa 80,000 African grey parrots for export per year, according to Ben Minnaar of the Parrot Breeders Association of Southern Africa. Exports of more than 1.3 million African grey parrots from South Africa have been documented since CITES debuted in 1975.
But while South Africa farms African grey parrots successfully, barely 1% of the wild population remains in west Africa, and the population in central Africa is also in steep decline.
The proposal to uplist African grey parrots will be voted upon at CITES CoP 17 this week.
Cape Mountain zebras
South Africa during the first week of CITES CoP 17 won approval of a proposal to downlist the Cape Mountain zebra (from Appendix I to Appendix II. A subspecies of zebra, with a limited range, the Cape Mountain zebra had declined to fewer than 100 specimens in the 1990s, but has since recovered to circa 4,800.
Also during the first week of CITES CoP 17, the delegates on September 28, 2016 approved a proposal jointly offered by the U.S., India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Senegal to uplist all eight species of pangolin to Appendix I, meaning a total ban on commerce in pangolins and pangolin parts. Also called scaly anteaters, pangolins are hunted both for meat and for their scales, which are believed to have therapeutic value in traditional Chinese medicine.
According to the endangered wildlife advocacy organization Annamiticus, 18,760 tons of pangolin scales, 676 pangolin carcasses, and 611 live pangolins were recovered in 2015 from 77 pangolin trafficking interceptions in 19 nations. About two-thirds of the pangolin scales came from species native to Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria, but were seized in Hong Kong.
The pangolin scales represented the deaths of about 2,700 pangolins.
All eight pangolin species were already listed on Appendix II but with a zero quota for trade in Asian species. This unfortunately allowed traffickers to misrepresent the remains of Asian pangolins as having come from African species.
Wood bison & what’s a tur?
In other first-week CITES CoP 17 decisions, North American wood bison were dropped from the appendices, as fully recovered, with a stable population of about 9,000, while a mountain goat species called the western tur was raised to Appendix II. Native to the Caucasus mountains, western turs in Georgia have declined from about 12,000 circa 1986 to about 4,000 now. About 20,000 western tur remain in Russia, where they have formed the basis of a lucrative trophy hunting industry.