CITES takes countries to task for illegal elephant ivory trade

Illegal elephant ivory trade was a major topic at the CITES Standing Committee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland last week.

At the last Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference in 2013, eight source, transit, and consumer countries were identified as the most responsible for allowing illegal ivory trade to flourish and were required to draft and implement National Ivory Action Plans.

Last week, the CITES Standing Committee met in Geneva, Switzerland (SC65) and lauded progress made by Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Enforcement against trafficking has much improved in those countries, as evidenced by increases in ivory seizures and new anti-trafficking policies (all three were nonetheless asked to continue reporting progress).

Others were castigated harshly.

Thailand, ironically the host of the most recent triennial Conference of the Parties held in Bangkok in March 2013 (COP16), was given strict deadlines for meeting specific objectives and a failure to comply with such objectives may result in a full CITES trade suspension as early as March 2015. 

It was not entirely surprising. Thailand has been slammed by recent TRAFFIC investigations for rampant illegal ivory trade and a complete lack of ivory trade control legislation and regulations.

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Other countries, including those of “secondary” concern and deemed “important to watch,” were given until the next meeting of the Standing Committee in August 2015 to comply with a detailed list of requirements, or they could face the same fate. Countries that have not yet enacted adequate CITES-implementing legislation – currently over half of all Parties – could face trade suspensions as well.

In other news, the Standing Committee addressed several other important topics:

  • Asian big cats – The Standing Committee is requesting detailed reporting on trade, conservation activities, and stockpiles of cat skins and other products from range states for tigers and other Asian big cats, despite an attempt by China to limit reporting to only international trade. China, however, was successful in ensuring language requiring reporting on domestic stockpiles and trade, including live animals, presumably to highlight the large numbers of tigers and other big cats in private possession and trade in the US and other countries.
  • Rhinoceroses The Standing Committee agreed to specific actions that must be taken by Mozambique to stop the illegal killing and trafficking of rhinos if it is to avoid compliance measures (i.e. trade suspension) as well, and continued efforts to ensure compliance with the treaty by Vietnam and China, two major markets for illegal rhino horn products. The Parties did not, however, take up a directive from the CoP to revise the CITES definition of “trophy hunting” so that it did not include rhino parts and derivatives. The Parties said that decision will be addressed at SC66 next summer.
  • Pangolins IFAW joined the newly created Standing Committee working group that will solicit detailed information from Asian and African and make recommendations  to pangolin range states on legal and illegal pangolin trade that has emerged in recent years.  The species is akin to a scaly anteater, and much sought after for food, ornament, and traditional medicines in many Asian countries.
  • Appendix I trade reviewCurrently CITES has no mechanism for evaluating “non-commercial trade” in CITES-listed species, which sometimes happens in large amounts. The Standing Committee formed a working group to develop such a mechanism, which will become an important tool to evaluate and stop illegal trade in endangered species. Trade is often conducted using improper “science” or “captive-bred” CITES purpose codes or through insufficient findings that the trade will not be harmful to the species.
  • CITES vs. UNEPThe CITES Secretariat was at odds with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) representatives during the meeting, sometimes playing out in pointed statements by UNEP or the CITES Secretary General on the floor of the meeting. UNEP is the adminstrative body for CITES, but it is not a “UN Convention” as it was negotiated and ratified outside of the UN system back in the early 1970s. The CITES Secretariat is concerned about recent mandates laid down by UNEP to engage in a new planning system and to second staff to UNEP for training and other purposes.  The Parties and the CITES Secretariat will review the current Memorandum of Understanding and relationship with UNEP to determine whether changes need to be made, or if CITES should withdraw from UNEP oversight entirely.

Legal trade in CITES-listed species (plants, medicinals, pets, etc.) can be worth millions of dollars a year, especially for biodiversity rich countries like Thailand, and the EU, the US, and China, the major markets for legal CITES trade, generally comply with trade suspensions.

So, thus far anyway, CITES seems to be moving forward with its new “get tough” approach when it comes to ivory trade and other compliance issues.

We won’t know for a year whether this approach has staying power, but we’ll push for it.


Learn more about CITES and IFAW efforts to improve wildlife trade policy.

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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