How CITES can better protect endangered species

The Convention on Trade in Endangered Species will benefit from greater transparency and cooperation between parties.

There were an estimated 10 million African elephants roaming across sub-Saharan Africa in 1900 [AP]

Undoubtedly, the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species’ (CITES) greatest achievement to date has been putting an end to the international ivory trade. 

In 1900, there were an estimated 10 million elephants roaming across sub-Saharan Africa. By 1989, there were fewer than 500,000, largely due to poaching fuelled by an increasing international appetite for ivory. While the loss of elephants’ habitat certainly contributed to the demise of their populations, there was no doubt that trade in their tusks was the main cause. 

In October 1989, the African elephant was included in Appendix I of CITES, effectively banning the commercial international trade of all African elephant products, including ivory. CITES clearly still has much work to do on the issue: illegal poaching of elephants for their tusks continues, and certain African states regularly attempt to downgrade elephants’ CITES listing. But at this year’s conference, at least, there are no ivory stockpile sale proposals on the table. 

The 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to CITES, taking place in Bangkok, is happening on the 40th anniversary of the adoption of CITES. It is now clear that individual schemes to promote conservation through open trade, spread across the globe, are simply not working.

This is the reason why I believe it is time for the CITES parties to reaffirm in an open forum that CITES is a conservation treaty and its fundamental aim remains “to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival”. Without such a reaffirmation, CITES could lose its true course and its ability to fulfil the very purpose it was established to achieve. 

Work and discussions outside the formal CITES conference are pivotal in achieving conservation goals. The CoP is often dominated by heated debate on a limited number of species, and sound decisions are often sacrificed due to lack of understanding and lack of unity. There is little incentive to hold calm, rationale dialogue with the pressure of a high-profile vote looming. 

Ongoing dialogue outside of the CoP supports the formal structure of CITES. There are now more than 50 NGOs involved in the CITES community and their role is more important than ever, especially when they work together. The task of protecting the world’s elephants, for example, is far too big for any one NGO or party to address. Cooperation between all those involved in protecting animals on the ground is vital to achieve meaningful success in the future.

Furthermore, it is vital that CITES operate in a way that promotes transparent and inclusive decision-making. The Parties must recognise the impact that administrative and organisational issues can have on determining the efficacy of the CITES treaty. Without the right mechanisms to facilitate an open, clear and fair decision-making process, CITES could be open to widespread criticism, which would affect its ability to operate effectively. 

One such issue currently facing CITES is the use of secret ballots. A proposal, which we strongly believe would help avoid the overuse of secret ballots, has been submitted to this year’s conference by Denmark on behalf of the European Union. The proposal seeks to ensure greater transparency and consistency in handling the conservation issues, as the secret ballots can be used by some countries to unfairly influence others to get their way. 

Likewise, a separate proposal seeks to require all nominees to the Plants and Animals Committee to submit a “Declaration of Interest”. The implementation of CITES depends on unbiased and sound scientific advice, and it is the role of the Animals and Plants Committee to provide that advice.

If this proposal is adopted, each member of the Animals and Plants Committee will be required to reveal any links that may constitute a conflict of interest and could therefore compromise the integrity of their evidence. It simply goes without saying that this is essential. Without it, the integrity of the Convention could be called into question. 

In more general terms, the key to CITES’ continued success is simplicity. For CITES to remain effective, strict implementation should be the priority. Decision-making regarding key definitional and technical issues needs to be based on the precautionary principle and an aggressive pursuit of species conservation. Moreover, finite resources should be directed towards compliance assistance and enforcement capacity building. 

Science must retake centre stage as the fundamental underpinning of CITES decision-making. But much more investment is required to fund scientific research into the plight of so many species under threat which we simply do not yet know enough about. CITES’ decisions must, of course, always be based on sound science. Like any organisation that relies on co-operation, though, diplomacy and international goodwill are also important to its future success.  

The International Fund for Animal Welfare has been a committed member of the CITES community for more than 30 years, and while we accept that CITES alone can’t change the status of the conservation of the world’s most threatened species, it can give them a chance. We hope that by continuing to work together, we can make the next 40 years the best ever for CITES and the precious species it protects. 

Azzedine Downes is president and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Follow him on Twitter: @AzzedineTDownes