For two weeks last November, the fate of millions of living creatures hung in the balance.
During that period, the 12th Conference of the Parties (COP 12) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) met in Chile to debate the most pressing trade issues affecting animals and plants.
The CITES process can seem abstract when compared to the plight of elephants panicking under a hail of bullets, or to the crash of a giant forest tree felled by a chainsaw. But since CITES can be a powerful tool for animal advocates, it is important to understand the basics of how its decisions are made.
Beginning with a handful of countries in 1973, CITES now boasts more than 150 nations as signatories. It is a complex agreement designed to protect species threatened by trade, largely through restrictions outlined in its appendices.
Species listed under Appendix I are, with a few exceptions, protected from commercial-based international trade. Animals and plants listed under Appendix II can be traded commercially, but must be accompanied by documentation assuring that trade won't endanger the species. Appendix III is a unilateral listing by a country of origin of species that require a CITES export permit.
At COP meetings, signatory nations work to update CITES listings. On the whole, conservationists were pleased with the results of COP 12, the most recent conference.
First, the good news. While the Black Sea population of the bottle-nosed dolphin was not shifted to Appendix I, as originally proposed, it was maintained in Appendix II with a zero quota, effectively stopping legal international trade.
Japan's efforts to transfer both Minke and Bryde's whales from Appendix to Appendix II were soundly defeated. Japan will continue killing whales under the guise of "scientific research," but will have few trading partners for meat derived from the slaughter. On the other end of the size spectrum, tiny seahorses, long used for medicinal purposes in Asia, were listed in Appendix II.
Proposals to transfer yellow-naped and yellow-headed parrots, as well as blue-headed macaws, from Appendix II to Appendix I were successful. Animal advocates were also pleased by decisions to list in Appendix II the Madagascar flat-tailed tortoise and 12 species of freshwater Asian turtles often killed for meat. Whale sharks and basking sharks, which seemed doomed at the start of the meeting, eventually won placement in Appendix II.
One of the most controversial issues at COP 12 was the array of proposals affecting African elephants, particularly the push to open up the ivory trade. Ultimately, participants decided to allow limited trade in a manner that theoretically should not result in further endangerment of elephants; increased poaching, however, is likely to continue, and advocates fear that the elephants will still face grave threats.
Australia's proposal to place Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish on Appendix II was also the subject of furious debate. The parties opted instead for a resolution to promote cooperation between CITES and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. Advocates hope that this agreement will result in stronger efforts to protect the fish, which are widely sold as "Chilean Sea Bass."
On the negative side, COP 12 adopted a proposal to increase trade in vicuna wool, while rejecting the United States' sensible proposal to include the humphead wrasse, a tropical reef fish, in Appendix II.
Experienced CITES campaigner Ronald I. Orenstein has remarked, "Activists are always willing to chant 'Save the whale!' or 'Save the elephant!' but you never hear 'Save the listing criteria!'" Yet that part of CITES -- the complex, technical side -- is essential.
Although an astonishing number ob plants and animals continue to be threatened by human activity, the recent CITES gathering did manage to protect some of these species from trade-based dangers.