A two-week meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, last October brought some good news — and some bad news — to imperiled animals and plants across the globe.
The meeting was the 13th Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES began in response to an international effort that traces back to 1963, came into effect in 1975, and now has over 150 countries as signatories.
API helps shape CITES through participation in the Species Survival Network, a powerful international network of non-governmental organizations that works to influence policy through scientific and legal research, education, and advocacy.
It was recognized from CITES’s earliest days that, as stated in the convention’s preamble, "international cooperation is essential for the protection of certain species of wild fauna and flora against over-exploitation through international trade." CITES seeks to protect animals and plants that are threatened by such enterprise.
Protections are enacted largely through restrictions outlined in the agreement’s appendices. Species placed on Appendix I may not be traded for commercial purposes. Species placed on Appendix II may be commercially traded, but only with permits from the countries where they were obtained — permits based on that country’s guarantee that such trade will not endanger the species. Although numerous complex variables help determine on which Appendix affected species fall, simply put, an Appendix II listing either means that there is some concern that future trade may result in endangerment of that species, or that the species in question is so similar to one or more endangered species listed on Appendix I, that it is put on Appendix II to reduce the likelihood of an Appendix I species being passed off as a species that is not regulated under CITES.
At COP 13, the United States had entered a proposal to delist the bobcat from Appendix II. All the wild cat species not on Appendix I are on Appendix II, either because they are rare or, as is true of the bobcat, because of their resemblance to other Appendix I species. API wrote an extensive critique of the U.S. proposal, and was pleased to learn that the U.S. withdrew the proposal before it was voted on.
Happily, a far better U.S. proposal to place all seahorses on Appendix II of CITES was agreed to. In fact, marine life on the whole fared relatively well at the Conference. The U.S. managed to get a number of increasingly rare Asian species of turtle on Appendix II. The Irrawaddy dolphin, of Asia, was moved from Appendix II to Appendix I, banning all commercial trade in a species in high demand by owners of water park dolphin shows. The humphead wrasse, a coral reef fish that is in decline throughout the world, was listed on Appendix II, as was the great white shark. Japan wanted, but did not get, a listing that would allow legalization of trade in whale meat. Unfortunately, though, the U.S. facilitated an agreement between Chile and Australia on the conservation of the Patagonian toothfish (sold in seafood restaurants as "Chilean sea bass"); this led Australia to withdraw an Appendix II proposal that, if passed, would have been binding on all nations signatory to CITES.
Back on land, the news was decidedly mixed. Although some trade in elephant ivory will be allowed, the Conference retained a strong degree of protection for elephants — protections that are critical, since experience shows that any legalized trade of ivory tends to promote illegal poaching. COP 13 also decided to allow some tightly regulated trade in southern white rhinoceros. A major disappointment at the meeting was Kenya’s failure to have the African lion moved from Appendix II to Appendix I. The Cuban population of American crocodiles went from Appendix I to Appendix II, as did the Namibian population of the Nile crocodile.
Many bird species were also the subject of discussion and debate. The peach-faced lovebird was removed from Appendix II, while the bald eagle, once endangered in North America but now more common, went from Appendix I to Appendix II. The yellow-crested cockatoo was shifted from Appendix II to I.
The process through which CITES enacts species protections can seem maddeningly complex and bureaucratic — even to those directly involved in it! But CITES is a powerful tool for animal advocates to wield on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable and imperiled creatures. Although CITES is not a "cure all" for endangered animals, it can, at times, truly mean the difference between life and death, between survival and extinction.