For the past two weeks, thousands of diplomats, scientists, and conservationists have been meeting in South Africa for what’s been called “the most important conservation event you’ve never heard of.” CITES (SIGH-teez), or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is a 183-government-strong treaty that regulates the wildlife trade and combats wildlife crime. Climate change and habitat loss pose great threats to the world’s wildlife, but the booming commercial trade in wild animals and their parts—illegal and legal—is driving some species to extinction in the wild.
Rhinos are killed for their horns, which some people in Vietnam grind up believing it will cure cancer or make them more virile. People smuggle tortoises, turtles, and lizards across borders and oceans for pets. They breed and slaughter tigers to make wine from their bones. And elephants are dying by the tens of thousands for their ivory.
Every three years, CITES member countries gather to review proposals to “uplist” or “downlist” certain plants and animals—in other words, to give them greater protections by restricting or prohibiting trade, or easing restrictions for those species that have made progress toward recovery.
We’ve been in Johannesburg following developments during the meeting, and here are some of the things we’ve learned.
No one knows what happens to most seized animals—but sometimes it’s bad. Reptiles, birds, monkeys, and more are slipped across borders at increasing rates to be sold as exotic pets or as props in tourist attractions. It’s always a good thing when authorities seize the animals before they meet their grim fates, right? Wrong. Many countries aren’t equipped to handle them, so they end up either dying or heading back into the hands of traffickers. There’s no database showing which outcomes are most common, making it hard to know where to direct resources and which nations to hold accountable when things go wrong. The convention’s member countries agreed to direct the Secretariat, the governing body of CITES, to distribute a questionnaire and provide analysis about how nations deal with confiscated animals.
The world is not ready to crack down on the trade of captive lion parts. Countries considered a proposal that would ban all international trade in African lions and their parts, but the outcome was a compromise made in a closed meeting that bans only the trade in bone, claws, and teeth from wild lions. It will still be legal to sell the parts of captive-bred lions, but South Africa will now have to report how many are traded each year. South Africa alone is home to some 8,000 captive lions, for use in canned hunts and the parts trade. Demand for lion bones has been on the rise, as tigers—the longtime source of bone for traditional medicine—have become dangerously scarce. The problem with continuing to allow trade in captive-bred lion parts is that it’s impossible to tell them apart from those of wild lions, giving criminals a way to launder bones from the latter, whose numbers have been falling fast.
Vietnam has failed to enforce bans on the rhino horn trade. Rhinos in Africa are slaughtered at alarming rates for their horns, most of which end up in Vietnam. As the main market for illegal rhino horn, it’s up to Vietnam to enforce a ban on the rhino horn trade—but it hasn’t. In fact the country hasn’t prosecuted any high-level traders. Now CITES has warned that Vietnam could face sanctions if it doesn’t intensify enforcement efforts.
Speaking of rhino horn, African countries think it’s OK to sell it. The parties as a whole rejected a proposal by Swaziland to sell the horns of its white rhinos, which would have lifted a ban on the rhino horn trade in place since 1977. But tellingly, most white rhino range countries—including South Africa, home to most of them—supported Swaziland’s proposal. Swaziland, which said it wanted to use money from the sales to help conserve rhinos, may have lost this skirmish at CITES, but there may be a bigger battle to come. (Read more: The World Votes to Keep Rhino Horn Sales Illegal.)
Pangolins can’t be bred in captivity. Pangolins, found throughout Asia and Africa, are cat-size creatures that eat ants and termites. They’re also the most trafficked wild mammals on Earth, in demand in some Asian countries for their meat and scales. One reason why there’s so much pressure on wild pangolins, we learned, is because they can’t successfully be bred and raised in captivity—their diets are too specialized, and they have low reproductive rates. At the convention, countries agreed to ban trade in pangolins and their parts. (Read more: The World’s Most Trafficked Mammal Just Got Some Much-Needed Help.)
China wants to close domestic ivory markets but supports opening international ones. During the conference, the country received hearty praise from conservationists for its strong support for a resolution calling on countries to close down their internal ivory markets (it’s own domestic market is one of the largest in the world). Nonetheless, China also spoke up in favor of proposals from Namibia and Zimbabwe to reopen the international ivory trade, arguing that it would help combat the illegal trade. It’s unclear how China justifies this paradox. (Read more: Bid to Revive Ivory Trade Fails.)
The illegal pet cheetah trade is having a demonstrable ill effect on wild cheetah numbers. We’ve known for a while that the demand for pet cheetahs in the Gulf states was a problem. Cheetahs do not make good pets, but some wealthy people buy them as a status symbol. But now for the first time, research has shown that the smuggling of cheetah cubs out of Ethiopia and across the Red Sea is causing cheetah numbers to decline in the wild—a big problem given that the cats are considered vulnerable to extinction. At CITES, countries approved new recommendations to help crack down on the trade. (Read more: Rich People’s Pet Cheetahs Put Wild Cheetahs at Risk.)
Nuclear test radiation can help fight elephant poaching. Scientists are using all kinds of forensic technologies to fight wildlife crime, including DNA testing. One of the newer ones is the use of carbon dating to determine how long ago an elephant was killed. Thure Cerling, at the University of Utah, explained how it works during a side event at the conference. Radioactive carbon-14 was released into the atmosphere during the open-air nuclear bomb tests of the 1940s, '50s, and ‘60s and was taken up by plants all around the globe and remain, albeit at lower and lower levels, in plants today. When elephants eat plant matter, the isotope enters their teeth and tusks. Carbon-14 decays at a known amount each year, so by measuring the amount of the isotope in a tusk, scientists can figure out how old the elephant was when it died. If the ivory is from after 1989 (the year the international trade in ivory was banned), then it's most likely illegal. Combined with DNA testing to identify the geographical source of the data, it can help law enforcement agencies focus their efforts. (Read more: How Forensic Technology Can Fight the Ivory Trade.)
South Africa has nearly 300 tigers on private farms. In China and a handful of Southeast Asian countries, there are an estimated 7,000 captive tigers on farms, many of which are thought to supply the illegal trade. South Africa’s farms make money through tourism, but once the tigers are fully grown, it’s not clear what happens to some of them. Records show tiger skins, skeletons, and other parts leaving South Africa, according to a 2015 report. As international moves to crack down on tiger farms gain momentum, including a proposal at CITES last week, South Africa’s captive tiger facilities have largely escaped scrutiny. (Read more: The World Is Finally Getting Serious About Tiger Farms.)
At the convention we also learned something important about the way the largest international body tasked with protecting wildlife works—how, as happened in the eleventh hour, vested interests can appear to hijack the proceedings.
Case in point: A proposal to give African elephants more protections—which would have put a permanent ban on the ivory trade—was defeated, at least in part because one pro-ivory trade country made a powerful threat: If the proposal went through, Namibia warned that it would enter a “reservation” saying it would would simply resume ivory sales outside the CITES legal regime.
The convention allows any country to file a reservation saying it they will not be bound by a particular provision in the treaty. Many consider this a serious shortcoming, likening threats such as Namibia’s warning to “blackmail.”
“It's not easy to achieve good outcomes for wildlife from CITES—geopolitics trumps wildlife, whether it's trade deals or climate change,” says Rosalind Reeve, a senior advisor with the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and Fondation Franz Weber, both wildlife NGOs. “And certain countries will even stoop to using threats, and intimidation.”
CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon disagrees with that characterization. “To indicate that a reservation may be entered is not a threat but an expression of intent to enter a reservation, as is the right of any Party.”
Either way, Namibia’s suggestion was enough to scare off the United States. After months of hinting that it would back greater protections for elephants, the U.S. voted against the proposal, saying that calling Namibia’s bluff would have been too great a risk.