Panama City, PanamaSharks, reptiles, and songbirds were among the hundreds of species that received new or increased global protections at a contentious two-week summit on the international wildlife trade. The meeting, attended by more than 160 countries from November 14 to 25, reaffirmed international commitments to ban cross-border sales of almost all elephant ivory and rhino horn and strengthened protections for many animals popular in the exotic pet trade.
The members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the treaty that manages the multibillion-dollar wildlife trade, considered 52 proposals to increase or decrease protections for species ranging from African elephants to Indian rosewood, among other topics.
Long-standing debates reemerged, including how to fund conservation, what countries may do with their ivory stockpiles, and whether trade restrictions place unfair burdens on local communities. The EU, which votes as a block, wielded significant veto power on a number of controversial proposals, including one that sought to ban sales of hippo teeth (an elephant ivory alternative), which it opposed.
The summit underscored that the scope of the global wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, is vast—poachers hunt elephants for their ivory, harvesters gather wild plants for food and cosmetics, and glass frogs are captured to supply the global pet trade. Communities around the world are dependent on such commerce for their livelihoods, but trade has pushed some animals and plants to the precipice.
What’s more, even when countries agree to bolster protections for species, factors such as lack of political will and corruption may impede implementation of decisions made at the triennial CITES summits. Two weeks ago, a Cambodian forestry official was arrested on his way to the meeting in Panama City for his alleged role in trafficking endangered, CITES-protected primates. (See the National Geographic story and Cambodia’s reaction to the monkey business.)
Countries continued to hew to the stated mission of CITES: keeping species from going extinct because of trade. Rather than take any immediate action to modify the treaty, members formed working groups to consider thorny issues such as how the risk of zoonotic diseases or trade-dependent rural livelihoods could—or should—be weighed in future protection decisions. And a proposal from Botswana and Zimbabwe to modify the voting system to give more influence to countries struggling to manage large numbers of a contested species, such as elephants, was rejected.
Three major themes emerged from the conference.
Exotic pets in need
Though much of the conversation about global wildlife trade is often about elephants and rhinos, this meeting was heavily reptile-focused, with almost half the 52 species proposals relating to lizards, snakes, geckos, and numerous turtles. Demand in Asia, the United States, and Europe for exotic pets drives much of the trade in these animals, but some are also sought for human consumption or use in traditional medicine. (Learn more about why U.S. turtles are being shipped to Asia).
Among the popular exotic animals, all species of glass frogs—known for their transparent bodies—gained enhanced protection. In addition, cross-border trade in pygmy bluetongue lizards, an Australian animal that lives only in 30 localized areas, and red-crowned roofed turtles, a critically endangered species found in northern India and Bangladesh, was banned.
Not all species that won enhanced protection are in jeopardy. Under the treaty’s “lookalike” provision, animals that resemble those at risk may also receive protections because government officials who inspect shipments of everything from wildlife to electronics can’t be expected to identify each specific turtle or plant. Or glass frog: That’s why all 158 species were added to Appendix II of CITES. Trade of Appendix II species requires import and export permits that hinge on sustainability.
The U.S. sought to increase protections for numerous native turtle species, including the alligator snapping turtle, common snapping turtle, several softshell turtles, and broad-headed map turtles, among others. In total, 36 native turtles were newly listed on Appendix II. The protections are a “critical step” to ending “loopholes that have enabled unsustainable collection for international trade,” says Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A win for sharks
Parties decided that the trade of 60 species of requiem sharks and hammerhead sharks will now be regulated under Appendix II. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists most of these—including bonnetheads, grey reef sharks, and dusky sharks—as threatened, endangered, or critically endangered. Seven species of stingrays and 37 of guitarfish also received Appendix II protection.
The fins of hammerheads, requiems, and guitarfish often show up in the global shark fin trade—but with this “landmark” decision, the majority of the “deeply unsustainable shark fin trade will be fully regulated,” says Luke Warwick, director of the sharks and rays program for the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society.
This decision sends a strong message about the role of CITES, originally intended to protect terrestrial species, in also safeguarding marine species. “It shows an acceptance by all that sharks are a core part of CITES work,” Warwick says. “This will be remembered as the day we turned the tide to prevent the extinction of the world’s sharks and rays.”
How should countries pay for conservation?
A common refrain at every CITES summit is how countries should pay for conservation—especially of elephants and rhinos, which require significant funding for protection from poachers. The discussion was particularly fraught this year. Eswatini, among others, expressed frustration that because the COVID-19 pandemic has dampened interest in safaris and wildlife viewing experiences, there’s a serious shortage of conservation funding. Ecotourism has been an important job creator for rural communities and source of revenue for anti-poaching work, among other things.
“At what point will good conservation be rewarded?” Eswatini asked. The country submitted a proposal to allow trade in its white rhinos, including their horns and body parts, arguing that the change is needed to fund park employees and game rangers, who have been on reduced salaries. “The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on economic sustainability have been calamitous,” Eswatini noted.
The proposal was rejected—opposed by the U.K., EU, Israel, and Nigeria, among others, who argued that any reopening of the commercial trade in rhino horn could stimulate further demand and illegal trade.
“We have heard much of this debate before,” Eswatini countered. “This proposal is about a broader challenge,” it said: “Just how, exactly, do we sustainably finance such work?”