There’s mostly good news, but also some disappointing outcomes, coming from Johannesburg and the meeting of delegates from 183 nations at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In a marker of continuing momentum for our anti-ivory-trade campaign, the parties have approved a resolution recommending the closure of domestic ivory markets that contribute to poaching and the illegal ivory trade. This is the first time that a United Nations body has agreed on the urgency of shutting down ivory markets worldwide, and the resolution comes in the midst of a dramatic rise in poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. Legal markets have served as a convenient cover to launder illicit ivory and to perpetuate market demand, and there is no excuse to permit these markets.
The delegates have also recommended that all eight species of pangolins, the world’s most trafficked mammals, should be given the highest protection under Appendix I. Pangolins are covered by keratin scales, and these and other body parts are used in medicines and tonics in some Asian and African countries. The United States imports tens of thousands of pangolin products every year, which find their way into markets around the country, including in Oregon where The HSUS is working to pass a measure protecting 12 types of animals affected by the global poaching epidemic, including elephants, sea turtles, and pangolins. HSI led the fight at CITES for the pangolin proposal.
The parties to CITES also rejected a proposal from Swaziland to allow limited international trade in rhinoceros horn, which could have had potentially disastrous consequences for the remaining global rhino populations. The proposal would have legitimated rhino horn as a commodity, increasing demand in consumer countries, complicating enforcement, and opening a loophole through which horns from poached rhinos could be laundered into the legal trade. This proposal would have also undermined the commendable efforts undertaken by consumer countries to reduce demand for rhino horn, as exemplified by HSI’s demand reduction education campaign, waged in cooperation with the government of Vietnam.
Three other big wins today were the recommendations to list silky sharks, thresher sharks, and devil rays on Appendix II of CITES, which would provide protections for these species from overexploitation for international trade. These two species of shark are in decline due to finning and overfishing, and devil rays are being increasingly targeted for their gill plates, which are virtually indiscernible from manta ray gill plates, a species already protected under CITES.
Besides these victories, we have helped secure greater protections for Barbary macaques, African grey parrots, and 56 species of reptiles. African grey parrots are one of the most widely traded birds for the exotic pet trade. Although many are bred in captivity, up to an estimated 18,000 greys are removed from the wild each year, mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a result, wild populations have declined by as much as 49 percent in the past 47 years. CITES has recommended an Appendix I listing for this species, which will stop international commercial trade in these wild birds. Fifty-six species of reptiles that are traded in the exotic pet trade were recommended for new or increased CITES protection, including Central America’s arboreal alligator lizards, African pygmy chameleons, Vietnam’s psychedelic rock gecko, Tanzania’s turquoise dwarf gecko, Madagascar’s Masobe gecko, the Borneo earless monitor lizard, and the crocodile lizard of Vietnam and China.
Our CITES team also fought back against a proposal from Canada to reduce protection for the peregrine falcon. The proposal sought to permit commercial trade in the wild birds who are very popular for the falconry trade throughout the Middle East.
But while the delegates at CITES agreed to close domestic ivory markets, they failed to recommend that the African elephant receive the highest level of international protection under Appendix I. The proposal, which would have prohibited all international commercial trade in African elephant body parts, failed to garner enough votes. We are especially disappointed that the United States opposed this upgrading, a stance somewhat inconsistent with its prior good works and its declarations on elephant protection.
In a second disappointing outcome, the parties did not agree to list all African lions on Appendix I. There might be fewer than 20,000 of these lions left in the world. The marginal action they did take will prohibit countries like South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania from selling parts of wild lions, but it won’t prevent trophy hunters from killing lions and shipping them back to the hunter’s home country. Fortunately, for 2016, the United States suspended imports of all lion trophies. The CITES decision also won’t stop the international commercial trade in lion bones from cruel lion farming operations, such as those in South Africa, which offer canned lion hunting, cub petting, and lion walks.
The United States is a top destination for wildlife products, and our work here is aligned with global conservation priorities. We have helped shepherd passage of groundbreaking laws in several states to help combat the illegal wildlife trade, as well as push for strong federal rules. But this is a problem that also requires nations throughout the world to take action. That’s why CITES is such an important gathering, and it’s why our HSI team members are fighting for animal friendly measures and fighting off threats that would imperil animals in even more dramatic ways.