What kind of world would this be if there were no regulation of the international trade in wildlife and wildlife parts? In a world in which commercial interests alone determined the fate of tigers, elephants and hundreds of other species threatened by trade, would these species really stand a chance? In a world where governments failed to consult and act in concert to ensure the survival of wild species against myriad threats, could those of us concerned about animals rest easy? And what of the well-being of people whose livelihoods are threatened by rapacious industries that destroy habitat and animal populations? What would such a world be like for them?
It’s distressing to imagine such a bleak and heartless world, and that’s part of the hope and promise of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), whose delegates will gather in the coming days in Panama City, Panama, to deliberate on 52 global conservation proposals affecting some 600 species of wild animals and plants. As much as any entity, CITES, a multilateral treaty organization established in the 1970s to protect wild plants and animals from the dangers of unrestricted international trade, has helped to mitigate the harm that commercial trade in wildlife species can cause.
We have our own delegation of specialists at the meeting, and they’ll be supporting a number of proposals, including measures to meet the threat to hippos posed by current legal and illegal exploitation levels, especially the international trade in their ivory teeth, which are threatening the survival of this species in the wild; enact further protection for glass frogs being stolen from the wild for the exotic pet trade; and to address the harm caused by the fin trade to requiem sharks, hammerhead sharks and guitarfishes. Our delegation team will oppose dangerous proposals in Panama, too, including two of a particularly reckless character. One involves allowing the international trade in African elephant ivory from four countries. The other would reduce CITES protection for southern white rhinos in Namibia, where they live under serious threat of being killed for their horns.
At present there are 184 parties to CITES—183 member nations and the European Union, a political and economic bloc comprised of 27 nations. The EU has just revised its own action plan to combat wildlife trafficking and address its status as a destination market and transit hub for unsustainable legal and illegal wildlife products. This is timely both for its potential benefits, but also as a reminder that the world cannot rely on CITES alone to implement necessary protections for threatened and endangered wild species. Concerned and interested nations must align their own laws with the priorities expressed at CITES and strengthen both the degree of legal protection and the enforcement commitments necessary under sovereign national law to make those protections real.
CITES, of course, focuses mostly on the problems associated with international trade of wildlife, but the perilous status of wildlife around the world is also influenced by other factors, including habitat loss and development, climate change and pollution. The overall challenge to wildlife species worldwide has never been greater, and right now, in an era of tumultuous, continuous and rapid change, we think that more and not less protection is needed via CITES and aligned governments.
Our preparations for CITES begin long before the proceedings begin, and once a major meeting has concluded, we go right back to work on our wildlife protection agenda. We cannot do otherwise. It’s certainly true that—the existence of CITES notwithstanding—there is substantial and debilitating illegal wildlife trade in the world. But, if we had no international law to regulate or make trade illegal in the first place, there would be very little left in the world to save. That’s what we’re fighting for, and that’s why we fight so hard for it.