CITES meeting previews species to watch at CoP

The author and Staci McLennan, IFAW’s EU Political Officer, Wildlife Programmes, at the recent standing committee meetings in Geneva.

Last week, IFAW participated in the 66th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Standing Committee.

And judging by the largest attendance to date and the wide range of species and issues discussed in Geneva, there will be no lack of important discussions and deliberations on the table at Johannesburg, South Africa’s Conference of the Parties (or “CoP”) this September.

The standing committee meetings, which usually happen every year in Geneva, Switzerland, address many of the technical process issues, as well as some substantive trade and conservation matters, that pop-up between the bigger – and more decision-making oriented CoPs.

PANGOLINS: These fully scaled mammals are under extreme pressure from illegal wildlife trafficking as the most traded mammal, and they were probably the second most discussed species at the Standing Committee meeting (second only to elephants). A CITES Working Group on Pangolins finalized a Resolution and Decision on conserving pangolins that will go to the CoP, and numerous interventions (or public announcements by nations or observers to the meeting) were made, highlighting how important it is that something be done to save this species before they disappear.  With all this in momentum, there is a high likelihood that one or more range countries will propose to transfer pangolins species from Appendix II to the higher protections of Appendix I (essentially stopping all commercial trade), which would then require a vote at the CoP.

LIONS: While African lions were not officially on the agenda at the meeting outside of a discussion of on-going species within the Periodic Review Process, lions dominated many of the side conversations outside of the Plenary Sessions and Working Groups. With the tragedy of Cecil the Lion still fresh in people’s minds, a recent decision by the US to list lions under the US Endangered Species Act, and every new study saying there are fewer wild lions left than thought previously, there will without a doubt be significant pressure from the global community to do something at the next CoP to save this species. That said, lions are incredibly controversial at CITES since pro-trade and trophy hunting special interests are part of the meeting mix, and dead-set in trying to maintain the status quo that has allowed for unsustainable trophy hunting to continue up until now. If a number of range countries step forward and propose stronger protections for lions at the next CoP, this has the potential to be one of the most contentious issues debated come September.

ELEPHANTS:  Interestingly, elephants and ivory sales – long the most iconic and divisive issue in the CITES forum – did not dominate the discussions at this meeting. There were numerous working groups, panel discussions and conversations about the elephant crisis and what role ivory demand has to do with it, with more Parties stating plans to burn stockpiled ivory and some calls to close domestic ivory markets (not covered by CITES). Debate over the controversial “decision-making mechanism” to eventually regulate legal ivory trade was defused by most Parties stating this discussion is out of place in the current poaching crisis. Whether to pursue the Decision Making Mechanism will now be taken to all the Parties at the next CoP for a decision. The Standing Committee did recommend Parties suspend all commercial trade with Nigeria, Angola and Lao People’s Democratic Republic for failing to submit progress reports on National Ivory Action Plans. Hopefully these outcomes are a sign that no controversial proposals to allow further ivory stockpile sales or downlist individual elephant populations, will happen at the CoP, and instead, hopefully the Parties can focus on how to stop the current slaughter of elephants happening across the country.

RHINOS: General acknowledgement was made of the severe situation for rhinos globally during Plenary Session discussions at the meeting. A proposed resolution to the CoP will call on Parties with stocks of rhino horns to identify, mark, register and secure these stocks and declare them to the Secretariat. Further, Parties are asked to ensure national measures for the import of hunting trophies including legal acquisition.

CHEETAHS: The illegal trade in cheetahs for exotic pets, skins and use as medicines are threatening this charismatic species. A workshop hosted in Kuwait with co-funding from IFAW drafted recommendations for Parties to increase public awareness, coordinate enforcement actions amongst range and consumer countries, provide humane confiscation for live animals and the creation of a toolkit to assist enforcers handling cheetahs in illegal trade. IFAW and Niger highlighted the role of e-commerce in trafficking of live cubs and a recommendation for Parties to work with ICCWC partners was included. Concerns over fraudulent claims on permits of captive breeding to launder wild cheetahs was also noted for Parties to monitor.

CONFISCATED LIVE ANIMALS: A major problem for most Parties tackling wildlife trafficking is what to do with live animals when they are seized. This of course has serious welfare implications for the animals. IFAW as a member of this working group has been advocating for Parties to further develop and apply guidance on how to be prepared for handling animals once they are seized by having rescue facilities identified, experts available, legal structures and financing in place, and the development of regional networks to aid in animal rescue or possible return to the wild. The CoP will now be asked to consider a questionnaire to Parties on how they handle confiscated animals and the development of a study to assess data on confiscations (a situation currently poorly reported). IFAW will be actively pursuing the opportunity to help Parties proactively prepare for handling live confiscated animals with their welfare and conservation in mind.

There were numerous other animals discussed at the meeting – sharks and rays, Asian big cats like tigers, saiga antelope, teak wood, and numerous traded bird and reptile species – that could still emerge as important issues at the CoP, but for the time being, best bets to watch are pangolins, lions, elephants and rhinos as potential high-profile issues for the upcoming Conference of the Parties.


Staci McLennan, IFAW’s EU Political Officer, Wildlife Programmes, contributed to this report.

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