CITES animals committee reviews international trade in iconic species

17 September 2015

A committee tasked with monitoring and balancing wildlife animal conversation with sustainable international trade undertook a review of popular species such as the lion and polar bear, while also examining how to update its processes in the face of new technology developments, during a meeting held in Tel Aviv, Israel at the start of September.

The committee also reviewed proposals to adjust the level of protection for some animals including freshwater stingrays, various Asian snakes, and certain crocodiles and lizard species.

The 18th meeting of the Animals Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) – attended by some 200 government experts, representatives from international organisations, and civil society groups – was one of the two last meetings before a CITES Conference of the Parties (COP17) scheduled to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa next year.

In force since 1975, the Convention restricts and regulates international trade in certain animals and plants to help minimise threats to their survival, operating through a system of Appendices. The listing, and sometimes de-listing, of fauna and flora from various CITES appendices regularly proves a source of heated discussion among parties.

Appendix I includes species deemed to be threatened with extinction, only allowed to be traded in exceptional circumstances. Appendix II species are not necessarily threatened with extinction but may become so if trade is unregulated. The lightest listings are on Appendix III, which includes species that a party would like to see controlled through international trade, in addition to its own domestic trade restrictions.

CITES’ Animals and Plants expert committees were established in 1987 with the aim to fix gaps in knowledge through technical support to decision making regarding species of animals and plants that are or might become subject to the instrument’s trade controls. The committees must undertake periodic reviews as well as “Reviews of Significant Trade” (RST) in order to advise where certain species are subject to unsustainable trade.  

African lion in the spotlight

Recent international headlines on the killing of “Cecil the lion” in Zimbabwe by an American dentist and ensuing debates on trophy hunting and conservation served as a backdrop to the Tel Aviv meeting where the African lion was up for periodic review.  

The discussions reportedly centred on the threats facing lions in different territories. For example, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the species as “vulnerable” in aggregate due to some stable populations, while others face pressures such as indiscriminate killing in defense of life and livestock, habitat loss, prey base depletion, bushmeat trade, and poorly regulated sport hunting.

According to IUCN estimates, lion subpopulations increased by 11 percent in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and India, but subpopulations elsewhere have declined by 60 percent. Overall, lion populations have dropped by around 42 percent over the last two decades, to leave around 32,000 lions in the wild last year.

Kenya said in Tel Aviv that it planned to submit a proposal to list the African lion species on Appendix I. The proposal – which would significantly limit activities such as trophy hunting and the international transport of spoils – may face pushback from some other nations.

Polar bear trade harmful?

The polar bear was another protagonist of the AC28 talks. In an RST of Appendix II listed species, the committee reportedly initially agreed to remove all polar bear range states from review except for Canada, following US requests on concerns over “deficient” data for some subspecies. Some participants expressed concern about the decline in polar bear populations as a result of climate change and loss of sea ice.

Pushback from Ottawa, stating that only a very small portion of the 352 bears harvested annually out of a population of 16,000 entered international trade, suggested that international commerce is not a driving factor influencing the species’ survival in the wild.

The polar bear was ultimately deleted from the CITES RST after discussion. However, some reports indicate that several players may come forward with a proposal to  move the polar bear to Appendix I for COP17, in a déjà vu of efforts at past meetings.

Managing sharks

At a 2013 CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, parties agreed to list five types of shark and all manta rays on Appendix II. The latest Animals Committee meeting, however, saw host-nation Israel present a report revisiting additional shark and ray species that might be threatened by international trade.

While a number of players welcomed the report, several said that greater attention should first be given to properly implementing the earlier marine listings due to the particular challenges these face.

For example, identifying the parts of an illegally caught fish such as fins and derivatives including meat and oil that may make their way onto a black market, can be particularly difficult. Parties have also had to navigate the thicket of international law dealing with territorial fishing rules in order to determine procedures when a fish is caught on the “high seas.” (See BioRes, 30 September 2014)

The listing of the five shark species and manta rays had also proved particularly controversial due to their associated high commercial value in the ballpark of US$1 billion annually. The Appendix II listing nevertheless continues to permit some international trade in these species while mandating that this must be strictly regulated to ensure its legality, sustainability, and traceability.

Ensuring better review processes

During discussions of the working group on the RST, recommendations on the need to enhance transparency, define stricter criteria for species selections, improve communication and consultation between range states, and shorten the review process were voiced by an advisory working group.

Several countries also voiced concerns around the lack of capacity and resources to adopt new technologies that can improve compliance with the Convention, especially those related to traceability and identification.


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