Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Glass frogs were among the more than 500 species considered for protections at this year’s CITES international wildlife trade meeting in Geneva.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

8 takeaways from the most important wildlife event you’ve never heard of

The 18th meeting of the global treaty on cross-border wildlife trade was contentious—but more than 130 species newly received protections.

Nine animals received increased protections from international trade, and more than 130 species won protections for the first time at a two-week summit aimed at managing the multibillion-dollar cross-border wildlife trade while preventing endangered animals and plants from sliding to extinction.

Not every country went home happy. “What I sense in the room, and what I’m concerned about is there’s a bitterness,” says Ivonne Higuero, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). “There’s a discussion of ‘This is not working for me, it hasn’t been working for me for some time.’”

From August 17 to August 28, 182 countries and the European Union considered proposals for more than 500 species, and their votes often broke down based on political, economic, and geographic lines. Southern African nations, for example, squared off against many other African nations on their differing approaches to elephant conservation and how to fund it.

Until now, CITES decisions about levels of protection for species have been based exclusively on science—knowledge accumulated by biologists and ecologists, for example—but disagreements arose over how much weight CITES should now give to other factors, including the needs and desires of rural communities that live alongside wildlife. Economic and social benefits, for example, such as revenue from hunting and ecotourism to benefit villagers, are increasingly seen as integral to discussions about levels of protection.

Every three years CITES members convene to discuss the treaty, which was enacted in 1975. Eight themes emerged from this year’s conference. (Read more about the major CITES decisions here).

1. Marine animals are gaining a needed safety net.

Decisions to increase protections for mako sharks, wedgefish, and guitarfish came on the heels of a resolution proposed by Antigua and Barbuda to stop all marine species from being listed under CITES until it can be demonstrated that CITES protections do in fact make a difference. The resolution was roundly rejected, but this wasn’t a new notion.

“There’s long been this idea that somehow CITES isn’t a tool for marine species, and that idea to us is absurd,” says Matt Collis, director of international policy at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

CITES was set up to deal with terrestrial species, leading some to say that marine species should be excluded and that regulation should be left to regional fishery bodies. This idea is a relic from when CITES began in the 1970s, says Luke Warwick, assistant director of the sharks and rays program for the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society.

This year, Warwick says it seems that a consensus was finally reached: In a “weird” but “positive anticlimax,” Japan, which opposed the mako shark proposal, surprised conservationists when it didn’t reopen the mako shark debate in the final session. That’s when proposal decisions must be confirmed or rejected and countries have a chance to reopen debates. This shows the idea that CITES is for sharks is becoming mainstream, Warwick says.

“There’s a growing recognition that CITES does marine and it does it well,” he says.

2. The exotic pet trade is putting an increasing strain on dozens of threatened species.

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The Indian star tortoise, considered a “vulnerable” species, is one of the world’s heavily trafficked tortoises. CITES members voted to ban it from international commercial trade.

More than a third of the proposals this year related to reptiles and amphibians that are now threatened, largely because of their popularity as exotic pets in the United States, the EU, and elsewhere. Those species include the Indian star tortoise and the tokay gecko. Two otter species—the Asian small-clawed otter and smooth-coated otter—similarly have suffered from their popularity among exotic pet collectors, particularly in Southeast Asia. Collectively, more than 20 of the 56 proposals up for CITES consideration had listings spurred by the pet trade. Almost all mustered enough votes to increase protections. Only one proposal—to list all 104 species of glass frogs—failed to pass.

3. How should countries fund conservation? CITES didn’t provide answers.

The long-standing debate over how to fund conservation efforts came up again this year, notably in the debate over elephant and rhino protections.

Eswatini proposed opening its commercial rhino trade, which would allow it to sell abroad its nearly 730-pound stockpile of horn, valued at $9.9 million. Fears that a legal trade would stimulate demand and smuggling of rhino horn led to the rejection of the proposal, but the question remains unanswered: How will countries such as Eswatini fund conservation?

Some conservationists have suggested ecotourism or donations could help. During the debates, the representative from Eswatini angrily invited opposing countries and nonprofit organizations to step up and pay to protect its rhinos.

“Opinion seems to come not with responsibility,” he said of the opposition. “If the finance is not available to protect them, rhinos will continue to die, and so will people.”

4. Frustrations persist between southern African countries and the more than 30 countries that make up the African Elephant Coalition.

Debate about how to manage the trade in charismatic large animals and products from them, including ivory and rhino horn, was intense. Southern African countries, such as Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, had very different views from the countries that have come together as the African Elephant Coalition, a consortium of more than 30 countries that seek to preserve African elephant populations and want a world free from trade threats to the animals. Officials from the former said they should have the right to trade their animals and products from them and believe they should be rewarded for their conservation. Coalition members such as Kenya, for example, argued that these species still need to be preserved and shouldn’t be involved in global commerce beyond current levels. (For more, see our related coverage here).

5. The EU, which stands as a 28-vote block, wields the power to make or break proposals.

At the start of the conference, not all 28 EU countries had been fully credentialed. As a result, when a major vote came up about banning the sale of wild African elephants to countries outside where they live, the EU, even though it opposed the proposal, couldn’t vote. Had the EU voted, the proposal would have failed. (The EU later reached a compromise with other countries and, after adding amendments that create certain exceptions for such sales, ultimately supported the proposal.) Yet the EU’s outsize influence enabled it to scuttle a separate effort to protect glass frogs (popular in Europe as exotic pets) from trade, despite impassioned defense of the proposal by Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras—countries where the animals live in nature. Meanwhile, a new level of protection for mako sharks squeaked by. Observers say the vote would have gone the other way if the EU hadn’t signed on as a co-sponsor.

“The 28 EU member states are a powerful force at CITES—and generally a force for conservation,” says Susan Lieberman, of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

6. Is CITES acting quickly enough?

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Glass frogs, so named because of their transparent skin, are regularly traded as pets, particularly in the United States and Europe.

A 2019 United Nations report on extinction rates found that about one million species of animals and plants are in danger of disappearing, many within decades, because of humans. The vast majority of animals traded from country to country aren’t protected under CITES.

Neil D’Cruze, global wildlife advisor for the international animal welfare nonprofit World Animal Protection, wonders if CITES decisions come quickly enough to save species. D’Cruze says he’s spent years researching the vulnerable, and declining, Indian star tortoise, one of the world’s most heavily trafficked tortoises. Despite discussions about its trade status at previous CITES meetings, a ban on their international commercial trade wasn’t instituted until now. Similarly, all eight species of pangolins weren’t given the highest level of protection until 2017, although, according to the wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic, an estimated million were trafficked between 2000 and 2013.

“CITES is an important conservation and wildlife protection tool, but given the rapid rate of global biodiversity loss, there is always the wish that CITES, government, and NGOs could move faster,” D’Cruze says.

7. CITES is flawed. A path to fix it remains unclear.

A frequent complaint is the lack of transparency at many of the controversial votes at CITES meetings, including those relating to marine animals and elephants. The convention allows for secret ballot votes, and in such cases, one country can ask for a matter to be voted on by secret ballot. As long as 10 countries second that bid, the public will never know how a given country voted—unless that country asks for its vote to be put on the record. That’s a problem because countries need to be accountable to their public, says Lieberman.

Another common complaint: Now that the treaty has 183 members and scientists have learned a lot more about the dire situation facing a variety of species, the conference agenda has grown dauntingly long. Before this year’s meeting, CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero told National Geographic, “With each Conference of the Parties, we are increasing the number of documents and proposals that are being considered. This one has 20 percent more than the last, at South Africa. And that [conference] had a larger agenda than the one before.” She added, “A very big concern of mine as the new secretary-general is: Are we going to be as effective in general at CITES?”

Another criticism of the treaty is that the emphasis now is too heavily on restricting trade. Moreover, many observers say that CITES doesn’t treat poorer nations on par with richer ones—disproportionately sanctioning the former for failing to comply with or enforce the treaty. “It’s also fair to say that countries with well established and well staffed CITES authorities are much better versed at defending themselves,” says John Scanlon, who served as secretary-general from 2010 to 2018. (See this story on the sanctions process: Does CITES have teeth?)

CITES meetings generally happen every three years, although they’re meant to occur biannually. More frequent meetings would drive up the costs of managing the treaty but could shorten agendas, streamlining the process. Still, the three-year cadence seems unlikely to change: At the conclusion of this meeting, the next Conference of the Parties was announced for 2022, to be hosted by Costa Rica.

8. New elephant protections underscore evolution in thinking about these intelligent, sensitive creatures.

Although public attention is drawn toward charismatic creatures such as elephants and rhinos, most illegal wildlife trade actually involves timber, plants, and marine life. (Learn more: The fight to protect the world’s most trafficked wild commodity.) Still, the most contentious debates at this summit, as in previous ones, swirled around elephants—with proposals about opening up ivory trade, closing down domestic ivory markets, and loosening the restrictions limiting Zambia’s elephant sales. All three failed to pass, leaving the status of elephants largely unchanged.

But one elephant measure was approved: a near-complete ban on capturing and sending African elephants from some countries to zoos and other captive facilities abroad. The issue, which stemmed largely from concerns about recent sales of young elephants to China and the U.S., preoccupied the concluding discussion. Zimbabwe, in particular, has recently sought to sell some of its elephants. (See this related story.)

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.