CITES COP19 – deciding the fate of 600 species
Part II: CITES throws a lifeline to sharks
Following ten days of deliberation and discussion at CITES CoP19 (see Part I: CoP19, what it is and why it’s important), 46 out of the 52 proposals to bolster controls on species threatened by unsustainable levels of international trade were adopted, meaning that regulations will now be phased in around the world to limit trade pressures on over 500 species, including:
- 104 species of sharks and rays (97 that are traded for fins and meat),
- 158 amphibian species;
- 50 turtle species;
- 4 species of birds;
- 26 species of lizards;
- Two species of snakes;
- 3 species of crocodilians;
- 3 species of sea cucumber;
- over 150 tree species; and
- multiple mammalian species.
The Conference saw many issues on the docket, some were contentious, some controversial, many issues were new and some were longstanding.
In what may be described as a timeworn debate, some nations sought to rollback protections for elephants and rhinos in their efforts to sell-off growing stockpiles of their derivatives. While proponents argued that re-opening these trades in a limited and controlled manner would provide funds for conservation, opponents pointed to the previous fire sales of elephant ivory in 1999 as a cautionary tale, which were considered by many, to have triggered catastrophic spikes in elephant poaching. The proposals were, as expected, roundly rejected.
Listing entire families, the importance of lookalikes
CoP19 was especially important for a swathe of “lookalike” species. Provisions for listing lookalikes are aimed at ensuring that the trade in live animals or derivatives that bear a strong resemblance to the species being listed (i.e, those known to be facing extinction threats), are also regulated. This is because lookalike species present an enforcement challenge as they can intentionally or unintentionally obscure the trade in listed species.
As a result, we saw the listing within CITES Appendix II of entire taxonomic families, including 54 l species of the Requiem shark family (Carcharhinidae spp.) Nineteen endangered or critically endangered Carcharhinidae sharks were proposed for Appendix II listing. However, the fins and meat of these species are difficult to distinguish from the rest of the species in the family. The entire family was consequently listed. This is particularly significant for Hong Kong – since Requiem shark species make up a significant proportion of the shark fin trade. Overall, its estimated that 90% of Hong Kong’s shark fin imports will fall within CITES regulations following CoP19.
Other notable cases considering lookalikes were the listings of all 158 species of Glass frogs (Centrolenidae spp.) and the 20 species of Mud turtles (Kinosternon spp.).
The “lookalike” clause was also adopted in the context of the snapping turtles, as they are mostly traded as hatchlings/juveniles, at which stage the Common and Alligator snapping turtles are almost indistinguishable.
Enhancing sustainable livelihoods and species conservation – a balancing act
The conservation of sharks & rays and live animals traded for the exotic pet trade garnered considerable attention, with those seeking to protect species facing extreme pressure from the seafood and pet industries. Pro-trade advocates argued that such mammoth listings would damage the livelihoods of local peoples and that blanket protections were not in the spirit of the Convention. However, almost all the listings were for inclusion under Appendix II of CITES which, as a reminder, is not a prohibition on trade but a safeguard, requiring regulation, licensing and monitoring controls, to ensure that listed species are not being driven into extinction by the trade.
Encouragingly, many range states (i.e., those harbouring the home ecosystems for the species) were passionate advocates for their endemic species and fought hard to get the protections they felt their native animals deserved.
Conserving endangered flora
The remaining majority of species listed at CITES CoP19 come from the plant kingdom, as uncontrolled harvest to feed international demand has led to severe declines in wild populations of many flora species.
A range of timber-producing tree species (around 150 species such as Mahogany, Cumaru and Trumpet trees) were successfully listed in Appendix II. It is hoped that the listings will ensure that the international trade does not threaten the long-term viability of these slow growing trees.
Rhodiola species, a diverse genus of perennial herbs, has been traditionally used as an ingredient in many health products to treat fatigue, sleep disorders, depression, and more recently, COVID-19. The listing of Rhodiola species into Appendix II and the adoption of the Medicinal and Aromatic Plants agenda item will also hopefully assist in ensuring the sustainability of the trade.
Hong Kong’s persistent footprint
Once again, Hong Kong’s trade has overwhelming significance, with many of the species listed being heavily traded in and through the city (see table).
Hong Kong’s significance in the international wildlife trade, however, is often obscured by the city’s role as a major conduit to other jurisdictions as well as the aggregation of its CITES trade data with data for all of China. From 2015 to 2020, Hong Kong dominated global trades in hippo teeth, shark fins, sea cucumbers, crocodile meat and all manner of live reptiles. Consequently, efforts in Hong Kong to ensure the sustainability of the trade and to combat illegality are of tremendous importance to global biodiversity.
|Taxa||IUCN Status||Hong Kong Imports (2015-2020)||HK Share of Global Imports (2015-2020)|
|Hippopotamus||VU||7.3 tonnes of teeth||57%|
|Siamese crocodiles||CR||1,484 tonnes of meat||87%|
|Requiem sharks||[Range]||260 tonnes of fins||95%|
|Hammerhead sharks||[Range]||124 tonnes of fins||79%|
|Sea cucumbers||[Range]||10.7 tonnes||87%|
|Common & Alligator snapping turtles||LC-VU||258,042 live individuals (combined)||16% Common|
|Mata mata turtles||Not evaluated||23,917 live individuals||45%|
|Neotropical wood turtles||[Range]||46,829 live individuals||Unknown|
|Mud turtles||[Range]||98,656 live individuals||Unknown|
|Softshell turtles||LC||19,300 live individuals||Unknown|
|Map turtles||LC-EN||85,426 live individuals||Unknown|
Was CoP19 successful?
Overall, with a record number of listings, CoP19 was generally considered to be a success, and most notably so for the five hundred odd species of fauna and flora that had hitherto faced extreme pressures from largely unregulated trades. While far from a panacea, the inclusion of many species within the Convention’s Appendices extends critical oversight, enhances accountability and traceability and will hopefully ensure that these animals’ populations remain viable and sustainable.
The next Conference of the Parties (CoP20) will take place approximately 2-3 years from now – already listing proposals are being considered for a wide range of species threatened with extinction. Studies have shown however, that CITES listings often trail species reaching critical endangerment by a decade, with species left teetering on the brink of extinction.
It must be remembered, however, that many animal and plant species in the wildlife trade are threatened or even critically endangered but are not yet well studied nor listed in CITES or afforded any protection in national legislations.
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