From the hotly debated topic of elephants and ivory to deciding the fate of lesser-known creatures struggling for survival, this year’s CITES conference is sure to be one of the most important and potentially game-changing meetings yet
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a treaty that was established in the 1970s to regulate the trade in wild animals and plants, with the aim of ensuring their continued survival in the wild. It’s a particularly necessary initiative because illegal trade in wildlife is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry, ranking alongside the trafficking of drugs, people and arms. Protection from CITES can help endangered species avoid being wiped out by illicit organisations, or indeed by legal overexploitation.
Every three years, 183 parties (made up of 182 states from across the globe plus the European Union) meet to debate and agree the regulations for trade in endangered species. This year, the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17) takes place in Johannesburg, from 24 September to 5 October. Countries submit individual (or group) proposals that are discussed during the conference. It’s then decided whether the plants and animals in question should be offered protection from CITES, and if so, how much.
CITES currently protects approximately 35,000 species of animals and plants on three Appendices. Appendix I consists of plants and creatures that are threatened with impending extinction and whose survival may be affected by trade. It is illegal to trade in plants or animals listed on Appendix I. Appendix II consists of plants and animals who may face the threat of extinction unless their trade is strictly regulated: trade in these species is regulated by permits. Finally, Appendix III includes species listed because countries have asked CITES for their support in controlling the trade of the particular creature or plant. Species on Appendix III do not usually face extinction on a global scale.
Before discussions kick off this weekend, here’s what’s on the agenda for CoP17:
• Elephants are the hot topic this year
The planet’s majestic elephant populations are at a crisis point: 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2011 and 2013, and the species is currently being decimated at a rate of one every 15 minutes. This year’s CITES Convention is particularly important because the outcomes will play a big part in the survival or demise of elephants.
Since 1989, a number of bans on ivory have been implemented by CITES, followed by subsequent legal sales, which, many believe, caused the current poaching crisis.
Because heated debates around whether or not to allow ivory sales were taking up so much time at each CITES Convention, a memorandum was created, postponing all discussions on the legal sales of ivory stockpiles until 2017. The outcomes of this CITES Conference will dictate what happens to ivory stockpiles in 2017.
• When it comes to elephants, not everyone agrees with one another
Currently, most African elephants are listed on Appendix I, except those in Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, which are included on Appendix II. However, all African elephant ivory currently remains protected under Appendix I, and thus, ivory sales are illegal.
However, a number of proposals have been submitted this year which could change that. Namibia and Zimbabwe have requested to move their elephants to a straightforward Appendix II listing (which would tee them up nicely to sell their ivory in 2017 if the proposal is passed). South Africa and Botswana are also lobbying for ivory sales to be legalised. A number of other countries are believed to vote in support of the Appendix II listing, including Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Sweden.
On the opposite side of the fence is the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), a collection of 29 African countries who want all African elephants listed on Appendix I, putting an end to the split listing and providing elephants with the highest levels of protection from CITES. The AEC is also seeking to shut down all legal ivory markets, to pass a proposal requiring all countries to destroy their ivory stockpiles, and to restrict the trade of live elephants. The AEC is likely to be supported by countries including Australia, Mexico, France and the USA.
• The EU could override the African Elephant Coalition
With 28 members, the EU makes up the biggest voting bloc at CITES. Its votes on each proposal carry a lot of clout – more so even than the the African Elephant Coalition. Despite a petition (which asked the EU to support the CITES all-out ban on ivory trade) gaining over 1.2 million signatures earlier this year, the EU released a document on 1 July opposing proposals for a total ban.
Currently, it is unknown which way the EU will vote, but one thing is certain: the EU’s vote will decide the fate of many plants and creatures at CoP17, elephants among them.
Away from elephants, this year’s other proposals include:
- Moving African pangolins, a small and elusive mammal which is one of the most hunted and endangered animals on the planet, onto Appendix I
- Moving Barbary macaques, the only non-human primate that occurs north of the Sahara, to Appendix I
- Adding all silky sharks, thresher sharks and devil rays to Appendix II
- Moving rosewood, a plant species commonly used for carved wooden boxes and musical instruments, onto Appendix II
- Permitting ‘a limited and regulated trade in [Southern] white rhino horn’, currently in Appendix II
Furthermore, nine countries have submitted a joint proposal to transfer all African lions from Appendix II to Appendix I.
For more great content like this, sign up below for our FREE weekly newsletter. The best of Geographical in your inbox, every Friday afternoon!