The World Wildlife Conference (CITES CoP17) – what happened and what does it mean for endangered wildlife?

cop17_rhino_hpThe 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17) involving 182 states from around the world has just finished in Johannesburg, South Africa. After starting 2 weeks ago, this was a pivotal meeting to discuss changes to the CITES convention that regulates the trade in animals and plants across the world. CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and aims to protect over 35,000 species by making sure the trade in live and dead specimens of these species does not endanger their existence [1].

Unfortunately, considering the mess the world is currently in because of the illegal wildlife trades in pangolins, elephant and rhino ivory and tiger body parts – to name just a few – it doesn’t seem that CITES has been all that successful to date. Dogged by slow bureaucratic processes and disagreements between countries, previous CoPs have failed to take decisive action to get to grips with these issues. But could CoP17 change all this?

Susan Lieberman, vice-president of International Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society is heralding the Johannesburg summit as “the most successful CoP ever…where Science and wildlife conservation prevailed.” [2] Among the highlighted successes of the conference are:

  • All 8 pangolin species, (4 African and 4 Asian) were moved to Appendix I;
  • The African grey parrot, (heavily impacted by the pet trade), was moved to Appendix I;
  • All 9 species of devil rays, 3 thresher shark species, and the silky shark have been included in Appendix II
  • Resolutions and decisions to:
    • Close domestic elephant ivory markets
    • Stop the Illegal trade in rhino horn
    • Create National Ivory Action Plans
    • Form the Decision Making Mechanism on elephant proposals
    • Stamp out corruption
    • Protecting the critically endangered helmeted hornbill
    • Moving to tackling cybercrime in relation to the illegal wildlife trade
    • Acting on the illegal trade in cycads
    • Address the illegal trade in cheetahs, sharks and rays, tortoises and freshwater turtles and many more plants and animals


Now to explain some of the jargon in those announcements. Appendix I classification means that trade of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances (e.g. conservation research) and commercial trade in wild-taken specimens is prohibited. Appendix II deals with species that are not necessarily endangered or threatened with extinction, but do face threats from trade that could cause this in the future and thus require strict regulation of commercial trade. There is also an Appendix III which includes protection of species in more than one country, usually when a country has asked for assistance from others in regulating trade in that species and allows for each party involved to make unilateral changes [1].

Now these changes are good progress – especially for marine conservationists which sees several species sharks and rays get much better protection. Pangolins too now have the greatest level of protection and regulation in their trade – and about time too, being one of the most endangered and hunted species on Earth. [2]

Marine conservationists will be delighted by CoP17

Marine conservationists will be delighted by CoP17…


and so will pangolin lovers!

… and so will pangolin lovers!









However, a major hot topic was going to be proposals to move to a total ban on the legal ivory trade for all elephants in all African countries. African elephant populations are currently in freefall, dropping by 100,000 elephants from 2011-2013 with a rate of 1 individual every 15 minutes [3].  From 1989, CITES introduced several bans on ivory sales to try to regulate the trade but many blame subsequent decisions to legalise the trade allowed poaching and the illegal trade to explode again, especially with a boom in demand from several Asian countries (e.g. Vietnam and China to name but a few). A coalition of 29 African countries, known as the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), want all African elephants in all countries to be placed on to Appendix I, stopping any trade in elephant ivory. However, several African nations such as South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe want to legalise the trade semi-permanently, moving African elephants to a normal Appendix II listing to allow them to sell ivory products from next year. A memorandum had to be put in place in previous years due to such heated debates wasting time at the conference, so that any talk of legalising the trade finally must wait until next year to be approved. The legalisation of the ivory trade seems unthinkable but what makes it even stranger is that the EU is strongly is in support of this. With 28 members the EU has a great deal of power in its vote-share and unfortunately, these parties were successful in blocking the AEC from upgrading the protection of African elephants [4]. Though at least the ban on ivory remains in force – for now…


CoP17 represented a disappointing setback for conservation efforts to save the African elephant

The rationale behind a legal trade in elephant ivory, putting economics aside obviously, is to outcompete the illegal trade and allow consumers to switch to documented, legally-obtained ivory. However, several groups such as Save the Rhino have pointed out that the illegal trade will always be able to undercut the legal trade on price since the value of tusk and horn is so great [5]. Several other ideas are being explored, especially in rhinos by using synthetic ivory to ease demand – although it seems like this could just push up the price of wild ivory since there might be even more demand for this purer, real ivory [6]. Dyeing, removing and poisoning tusks and horns is also being explored but is likely to be traumatic for the animal (anesthetising can be fatal) and probably won’t put off poachers. For starters, ivory still exists below the skin and due to its value this is still worth obtaining so poachers have no issues in hacking off body parts to get to this. As for poisoning, the health benefits of ivory might mean that this could boost the illegal trade because if the poison isn’t fatal, then merchants/consumers will claim that these mythical healing powers are real (and of course there are the ethical implications of killing who consume ivory products, even if some may argue they deserve it!). Whatever the solution is, it must be an international one and it must also have multiple components. This makes the fact that elephants were not upgraded to Appendix I even more frustrating because this would have sent a strong, clear message to the international community that all the parties are willing to work together and solve this issue right now in a concerted way. Unfortunately, in-fighting and political arguments now will be allowed to continue simmering and impede progress and yet time is running out…

And …sadly yes… now for some more bad news: lions were also not upgraded to Appendix I. Instead they remain at Appendix II with a strengthened clause reading: “zero annual export quota for bones, bone pieces, products, claws, skeletons, skulls and teeth removed from the wild and traded for commercial purposes.” [7] Now looking at this closer I see an obvious loophole, how does one tell the difference between the body parts of a wild lion and lion that has been farmed/kept for trophy hunting? Well let’s be honest, without some high-tech equipment/genetic-marking this is probably not possible. The trouble is that the canned trophy hunting that goes on in some African countries such as South Africa only fuels the illegal trade, rather than acting as a captive breeding programme for conservation purposes as some have tried to suggest. What makes this even sadder is that the IUCN, bringing together members from across the world, had recommended that elephants and lions be moved up to Appendix I and that all captive breeding of lions for hunting should cease. Unfortunately, the IUCN’s recommendations seem to have fallen on deaf ears here. Again as with African elephants, the CoP had to compromise to appease both sides of the argument and come up with a rather meaningless change to regulations. In fact, South Africa was even permitted to set its own export quota for the body parts mentioned above that come from their captive breeding programmes [7].

male lion

Unfortunately the mighty roar of the lion was not heard at CoP17

So overall, it seems like the CoP was a mixed bag of affairs. Some good news for some species and some bad news for others. Unfortunately for lions and African elephants, the lack of progress or decisive action could be another nail in the coffin as time runs out to stop their march to extinction.












CoP17 –

Divers –

Pangolins –

Elephant tusk –

Lion –

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