CITES 2019: What’s Conservation Got To Do With It?

By Susan Lieberman | August 16, 2019

Jaguar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

[Note: This commentary was originally published at Mongabay]

From August 17–28, the global community convenes in Geneva for the meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The meeting was originally planned to take place last May in Sri Lanka, but due to the horrific terrorist bombings, the meeting was moved to Geneva, the headquarters of the CITES Secretariat.

This is the 18th meeting of the CITES CoP in the history of the Convention, which entered into force in 1975. There are now 183 governments as “Parties” (members) to the convention, comprising the only intergovernmental forum that addresses the threat of international trade to wild species of plants and animals — both legal and illegal trade.

I have had the privilege of attending all of the last 11 CoPs, as both a government and non-governmental representative. Governments attending will make decisions on whether to regulate international trade in certain species to prevent them from becoming threatened by trade, or to prohibit trade altogether for threatened or endangered species.

Species whose very future on this planet will be debated include the African elephant, Southern white rhino, giraffe, tiger, jaguar, cheetah, and mako shark. Several lesser known species will also be considered — among them the saiga antelope, helmeted hornbill, glass frogs, Indian star tortoise, and so many others.

Many of these species are subject to significant poaching and trafficking — either for use of their body parts or for the pet trade. This illegal trade threatens species while undermining the rule of law, facilitating corruption, and harming the livelihoods and sustainable development of local communities.

Wild male saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) visiting a waterhole at the Stepnoi Sanctuary, Astrakhan Oblast, Russia. Photo credit: Andrey Giljov [CC BY-SA 4.0]

It is easy to imagine that in light of the well-documented biodiversity crisis — from threats such as climate change, habitat loss, trade, and the depletion of wildlife that are over-hunted and over-fished — species across the globe would receive the necessary protection. But that is not always the case. Too often, commercial interests work to block increased protection or regulation of species.

There is one key conservation issue at play. If a species is found in multiple countries, and is declining or endangered in some and more secure in others, sound conservation practice and the precautionary principle dictate that international measures should focus on the populations needing the most help. Two examples highlight this point.

Mongolia and the U.S. have proposed conferring upon the saiga antelope (a critically endangered species found in the open steppes of Central Asia) the highest level of protection. Formerly widespread and numbering well over 1 million individuals as recently as the 1970s, the species repeatedly experienced drastic declines in the late 20th century, reaching an all-time low of about 50,000 animals in the early 2000s.

There has been some rebounding of populations, but the species is still threatened by poaching and illegal trade; the males’ horn is used in traditional medicine in China and Southeast Asia. In addition, disease outbreaks recently killed at least 200,000 saiga in the course of only three weeks.

The saiga must go to CITES Appendix I (which prohibits international commercial trade in threatened species) at the Geneva meeting. However, some governments and trade interests have focused more on the less-endangered populations in Kazakhstan and elsewhere than the critically endangered Mongolian saiga population. If the species is to persist in healthy herds, governments should ensure that all saiga receive the highest level of protection.

Glass frog in Costa Rica. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Another example is the giraffe, found in 19 countries in Africa. Giraffe populations are declining due to habitat loss, illegal killing and illegal trade, and climate change. Six African countries with giraffes have proposed CITES list the giraffe on Appendix II — which allows trade as long as it is sustainable and legal. Since there is evidence of some commercial and illegal trade, it is prudent to accept this proposal to ensure the giraffe trade is sustainable and does not further threaten the species.

Yet several interests are pushing to block this protection for giraffes, claiming that the species is in good shape in southern Africa. It is correct that giraffes are much better off in South Africa, Botswana, and their neighbors, than elsewhere in Africa, but prudent conservation says that the species must be looked at in its entirety. We cannot let giraffes disappear in Central, East, and West Africa because it might be inconvenient for others to require permits and regulation.

There are 57 species proposals and more than 100 other issues to be discussed in Geneva. When governments join a treaty such as CITES, they have agreed to act for the global good, and not only act or decide based on their own national or trade interests. Governments must not let their decisions be swayed by the pressures of those more interested in trade than conservation.

I look forward to strong, precautionary, conservation decisions in Geneva — for the well-known giraffe, the strange saiga antelope, and so many other species in need of global collaboration and action.

Susan Lieberman is Vice President for International Policy at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.