By Barry Kent MacKay | Director & Wildlife Specialist | December 2, 2022
It appeared that many of the proposals to provide added levels of protection, regulation, controls and oversight to international trade in species that may be threatened, even endangered with extinction, by such trade, that we supported, passed. Our support is primarily through membership and some other levels of involvement in the Species Survival Network (SSN). SSN consists of a wide range conservation and animal and plant protection organizations, which in turn draw upon a vast network of experience and academic expertise to make recommendations to the voting Parties to the Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This is done at the CITES Conference of the Parties (COP), with the 19th ending, in Panama, on November 25th. COPs are held about once every three years. I was not present at the conference to answer questions or lobby delegates on the positions we had taken, but I did have a very modest role in helping prepare the SSN Digest (see: https://ssn.org/app/uploads/2022/10/SSN_CoP19_Digest_EN.pdf). It is used by delegates, we hope, to help inform them on the decisions they must make at the COP.
There are over 180 countries signatory to CITES, each with a vote on issues any given country can propose, relevant to the treaty. Members of the European Union (EU) vote as a bloc. While many issues relate to technical issues of great importance, in determining the fate of the world’s wild animals and plants, most outside attention is focused on the “species proposals”. Both types of proposal can only be presented by member states (meaning countries) and only they can vote, with the EU having 28 votes. The SSN and other conservation and animal protection organizations can attend COPs as observers, officially called non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and may, at the discretion of the Secretariat and the Chairs of committee meetings, be allowed to attend committee meetings, and even, if recognized by the chair, speak up, although always deferring to the delegates. NGOs can also attend, and speak at, the plenary session, however, in the best diplomatic tradition an effort is made to reach consensus at the committee level with only the most contentious issues debated at plenary.
Not all NGOs prioritize conservation; there are others representing various animal and plant exploitation interests, such as safari hunting, the exotic pet trade, various aspects of the fishing industry, wood and timber importation and utilization, the fur and exotic leather trades, exotic orchid traders, the ivory trade and so on. Countries have their own political and economic interests and may or may not prioritize conservation. Of particular concern are the highly politicized and much valued “charismatic megafauna” such as elephants and rhinos, sharks, lions and other big cats and highly valued tropical timber. Emotions can run high at COPs. While everyone claims only to be motivated by what scientific objectivity indicates, back-room deals, political and economic considerations, threats and inducements, subjective arbitrariness and unconfirmed suspicions all occur within the proceedings in the form of rumors, allegations, and dark suspicions that thread their way through the two weeks of the conference, while all are aware that there is a massive illegal trade in wildlife products that rivals the illegal drug trade in generating untaxed profits.
To move a species into the Appendices or from one Appendix to another requires a two thirds majority of the parties attending and voting. Put simply an Appendix I listing for a species bans all international trade “for primarily commercial species”, while an Appendix II listing monitors trade, and requires documentation, but does not ban it.
So, what happened?
Sharks: As a member of SSN’s Shark Working Group, I’m very pleased that my colleagues’ hard work paid off very well, with COP 19 increasing protection of 95 species of sharks and guitarfishes in trade. This group of fish, including rays and chimaeras, are in heavy commercial demand, with at least about a third of them endangered because of the demand for their meat and/or fins and gill rakers. All 54 species of requiem sharks will be on Appendix II, and while most of these fish are tropical and subtropical, Canadian waters are within the natural range of the blue shark, whose numbers are in serious decline overall. Utilizing an Appendix II listed species requires what is called a Non-detriment Finding (NDF), which (supposedly) means that the trade will not endanger the species in question. Japan raised a great fuss, calling it “unfair” to include the blue shark in the overall Appendix II listing, presumably because in the flesh it is easily identified from other requiem sharks and there are still enough of them that it can be said they are not at risk of becoming endangered – yet! Japan lost.
Freshwater turtles: While the endangerment of sea turtles (killed for their shells, the source of “tortoiseshell” products, and their meat, with their eggs locally consumed) there has been a horrific international demand for a wide range of freshwater turtle species, many rare or endangered. They are sought both by the exotic pet industry, and for their meat. CITES COP 19 finally began to address this concern by listing many species on Appendix II of CITES, meaning that exported animals, their parts and derivatives will have to be accompanied by a permit whose issuance is contingent on trade not further harming the species. Included was one Canadian species, the common snapping turtle, which is no longer all that common. Much more needs to be done as most freshwater turtle species are in decline worldwide while commercial demand for them steadily increases, but it’s a beginning. A more detailed look at how the freshwater turtles did is presented in the Addendum, below.
Elephants: Zimbabwe’s efforts to remove some restrictions in trading raw ivory were defeated, but so were efforts by several African nations to increase protection of elephant populations now listed on Appendix II. An effort to allow trade in elephant leather was defeated, but much work on this issue needs to be done. There was agreement to do some reassessing of the National Ivory Action Plan, which is long overdue.
Rhinos: The tiny country of Eswatini again tried to legalize international trade (the third such effort) in rhino horn and again failed. Namibia achieved a compromise in its effort to allow some rhino horn to be exported as trophies, or live animals for very restricted in situ conservation efforts. That means only where they are kept and bred in natural habitat, not in distant zoos.
Asian songbirds: With my lifelong obsession with all things ornithological, I am pleased to report two conservation victories. A very endangered south-east Asian songbird called the straw-headed bulbul was upgraded from Appendix II to Appendix I. Another songbird from the region, one very familiar to me, the white-rumped shama, was placed on Appendix II. Both are in demand for their lovely songs and attractive appearances. All international commercial trade in the bulbul will be prohibited, while the trade in shamas will at least be carefully monitored and predicated on there being no harm to the survival of the species as a result of such trade.
Glass Frogs: Of special interest to me was the proposal to list the entire family of glass frogs on Appendix II. (see: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2022/10/09/help-keep-endangered-frogs-from-croaking.html and https://www.bornfreeusa.org/2022/11/12/cites-explainer-glass-frogs-need-protection/ ). While we know of 158 species, there are almost certainly more to be discovered in various tropical and subtropical regions of the western hemisphere. Small and cryptically colored, their numbers are hard to monitor in the wild. Many have areas of transparent skin, and that, plus their droll facial expression, make them desirable to the exotic pet industry. Unfortunately, the proposal was watered down to include only a dozen of the most seriously threatened species, but better than nothing.
Along with a huge variety of very important conservation issues and technical administrative concerns dealt with during COP 19 (see https://enb.iisd.org/convention-international-trade-endangered-species-wild-fauna-flora-cites-cop19-summary,) the delegates, astoundingly, agreed to 46 of the 52 proposals put forth to change the status of species of wild animals or plants on the Appendices.
Additional to the above, successes and failures in such proposals include:
Timber rattlesnake: Once found as far north as Ontario, this large snake is now extirpated from Canada and is in decline because of commercial demand, in the U.S., which wanted to place it in Appendix II. But unfortunately, the Americans could not garner enough support for what, to conservationists, seemed a good proposal, and so withdrew it.
American softshell turtles of the genus Apalone: There are all sorts of technical issues regarding the taxonomy and nomenclature of these fascinating turtles, but for now it is generally agreed that there are three species and several subspecies, all found only in North America, with one, the spiny softshell turtle, reaching Canada, where it is endangered! Some distinct subspecies are already on Appendix I, and so the U.S. proposed putting all the rest on Appendix II. Fortunately, the COP agreed.
Mexican prairie-dog: Mexico’s proposal to transfer this species from Appendix I to Appendix II was approved, which, although reducing the level of protection CITES provides, is actually a good-news story: the species has recovered from its former critically endangered status thanks to Mexico’s conservation efforts.
Aleutian cackling goose: Similarly, the U.S. proposal to move this distinctive subspecies of Canada goose (or Cackling goose – its taxonomic status is a matter of academic debate) from Appendix I to Appendix II was approved, another good news story validating the conservation initiatives that saved the subspecies from extinction.
Hippos: Benin’s proposal to transfer the river hippopotamus from Appendix II to I was, sadly, defeated. The concern, in part, that Benin had and we share is that with success at protecting elephants from being killed for their ivory, more demand is being put on the river hippopotamus, the larger and more widely distributed of the two species, for its tusks, which, while smaller than elephants, are also a source of ivory.
Short-tailed Albatross: Yet another good news story as the U.S. wanted to move this magnificent bird from Appendix I to Appendix II, as it has recovered its numbers and commercial demand is negligible (although, of course, like other seabirds they face serious threats from drift-net entanglement, long-line fishing hooks, plastic pollution, and declines in the marine organisms they consume as a result of both overfishing, and climate change, not to mention acidification and oil spills.)
Broad-nosed Caiman: Brazil wanted to reduce protection for this crocodilian by downlisting it from Appendix I to Appendix II, but with a ban on commercial trade in specimens from the wild. Conservationists were concerned since any trade can incentivize poaching, but the proposal was adopted.
Saltwater Crocodile: The Philippines wanted to move their own population of this widely spread species from Appendix I to Appendix II, also with a zero quota for animals taken from the wild, and it, too, was adopted, to the concern of conservationists.
Siamese crocodile: Similar to the two above proposals, Thailand wanted this species moved from Appendix I to Appendix II, with only animals that are captive-bred in Thailand, their parts or derivatives allowed into trade, but not anything from the wild. That proposal was also agreed upon, although the concern of conservationists is that this is a widely distributed species found in many regions where enforcement of protection laws is difficult to achieve.
Indo-Chinese water dragon: These attractive lizards are in high demand by the exotic pet industry, so we were pleased that Vietnam, a range state, proposed putting the species on Appendix II of CITES, and also pleased that the delegates to COP 19 agreed. A conservation win.
Jeypore hill gecko: Because there is a high demand for these geckos by the exotic pet industry while they are threatened in India, where they occur, although they were thought to be extinct there until re-discovered just twelve years ago! India proposed putting the species in Appendix II. The parties agreed, another conservation win, although an Appendix I listing is probably more warranted.
Helmethead gecko: Also placed on Appendix II, as proposed by Mauritania, was this species, unknown to most Canadians, and yet in demand by the rapacious exotic pet industry.
Desert horned lizard: When I was a kid these animals were called “horned toads” but they are true lizards and in demand by the pet industry. This species is found in arid habitat from Idaho to Mexico and the U.S. proposed putting it in Appendix II. That proposal was, I’m pleased to say, adopted.
Horned lizards of the genus, Phrynosoma: Mexico went one better with what is called a “whole taxa listing” of all members of the genus (which includes the desert horned lizard) on Appendix II. That was adopted, making the above, U.S. proposal, redundant. As with all Appendix II species, international trade in them, their parts or derivatives for primarily commercial purposes must be contingent upon assurance that the trade does not endanger any of the species listed.
Pygmy blue-tongued lizard: Australia valiantly tries to protect its native fauna from the demands of the exotic pet industry but it is an uphill battle, and so Australia proposed placing this species, much in demand by the exotic pet industry, on Appendix I, banning all trade in the animal, its parts or derivatives from international trade for primarily commercial purposes, and that proposal was adopted.
Puerto Rican boa: Another conservation success story that prompted the U.S. to propose moving this lovely West Indian snake from Appendix I to Appendix II. The proposal was adopted.
Matamata turtles: There are now two recognized species of these weird looking South American turtles, the Amazon matamata and the Orinoco matamata, both in demand for meat and as exotic pets, and so Peru proposed placing them on Appendix II, and won. Another success for conservation of freshwater turtles.
Snapping turtles: As discussed in the main text above, both our native common snapping turtle, and the larger alligator snapping turtle found in the southern U.S., were placed on Appendix II, as proposed by the U.S.
Broad-headed map turtles: Countries can, without a vote at CITES COPs, place one or more species on a third CITES Appendix, Appendix III, which means that any trade in that, or those, species from that country must be treated as an Appendix II species, with appropriate documentation. These five species of turtle were already on Appendix III in the U.S., but the Americans wisely decided it was not enough protection and proposed placing all of them on Appendix II. The COP agreed.
Red-crowned roofed turtle: Named for their steep-sided carapace (upper shell), and red markings on the head, this is the most endangered turtle in India, and listed as critically endangered by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). India proposed moving it from Appendix II to Appendix I. The proposal was successful and we can only hope that the species can be saved in spite heavy poaching before of the demands for its meat, its shell, or as an exotic pet.
Indochinese box turtles: Vietnam wanted to move two “non-typical subspecies” from Appendix II to Appendix I, which was approved.
Neotropical wood turtles of the genus Rhinoclemmys: Concerned about how vulnerable these turtles are – because they are slow to grow and to reach sexual maturity – to the demands on them by the exotic pet industry, Costa Rica proposed placing them in Appendix II. Remember, that only means that trade is contingent upon satisfaction that it does not further endanger them. Even before the meeting the proposal had the support of Argentina, Benin, Ecuador, Gabon, Guatemala, Niger, Peru, Senegal, Togo, and Uruguay. But note that the EU opposed it, although Switzerland and the UK came up with a compromise to list only some members of the genus.
The wildlife exploitation community, if I can call it that, often accuses the “developed” or “western” nations and their NGOs of interfering with the livelihood of poorer nations by imposing restrictions on what those non-western nations can export from their own living “resources”. But here, clearly, not only the range states of the turtles, but several non-western African nations were saying “enough is enough” and sought to protect these reptiles from endangerment, even extinction, and it was the Europeans who were saying no! Happily, the proposal passed, with the EU, grumbling, withdrawing its objection to gain consensus. A major win not just for one country or another but for the concept of conservation and the utilization of CITES as intended.
Narrow-bridged musk turtle: Mexico proposed placing this highly aquatic species, found only in Mexico and Central America, on Appendix II, and, good news, the proposal passed.
Mud turtles of the genus Kinosternon: Mexico proposed placing twenty species of mud turtles on Appendix II of CITES, and two species, the Cora mud turtle and the Vallarta mud turtle, on Appendix I. They are two similar species with very limited ranges. They are species about which almost nothing is known, including how rare they may be. What we do know is that they are so restricted in range that they are at risk of extinction. The proposal passed.
Mexican giant musk turtles, Staurotypus triporcatus and S. salvinia: Mexico proposed placing these two species of musk turtle, native to southern Mexico and parts of Central America, on Appendix II, and the proposal was adopted.
Musk Turtles of the genus Sternotherus: Not to be outdone in the long overdue effort to better protect the world’s decreasing numbers of freshwater turtles, the U.S. introduced a proposal to place all six species of this genus, distributed through must of the south-eastern U.S., on Appendix II, and the proposal passed.
Leith’s softshell turtle: Found only in parts of India, this turtle is critically endangered, according to the IUCN, and India wanted it transferred from Appendix II to Appendix I. It was. That is another victory for turtle conservation.
Lemur leaf frogs. Panama wanted to place this critically endangered species, found only in a few locations in Central America and the northern part of Colombia, on Appendix II, with zero export quota from specimens taken from the wild for primarily commercial purposes. The proposal passed, although an Appendix I listing would seem more appropriate, given the difficulty in policing international trade in wildlife.
Laos warty newt: Similarly, the EU proposed placing this species in Appendix II of CITES, also with a zero export quota for primarily commercial purposes of wild caught species. It passed, but given that the species is in demand by the exotic pet industry and is found only in a few habitats in Laos, and considering the difficulty of preventing poaching, I think an Appendix I listing would have been more appropriate.
Hammerhead sharks of the family Sphyrnidae: As noted above in the main text, all requiem sharks were placed in Appendix II. The EU suggested the same for the hammerheads. There are about 8 species, some critically endangered, some decreasing, some with population trends unknown. The proposal passed.
Freshwater stingrays (Potamotrygon wallacei and P. leopoldi): Brazil introduced a proposal to include these two fish in Appendix II, and it was adopted.
Guitarfishes of the family, Rhinobatidae: Israel, often a leader in conservation, wanted to list members of this family, that had been, as they said, “overlooked”, in spite of serious over-exploitation, listed on Appendix II. The proposal was adopted.
Zebrafish: Another species of special concern to me because again we had the country of origin, not a western nation, reaching out for help which was opposed by the usual wildlife exploiting NGOs who claim to support conservation. It is found in the wild only in a small part of one river in Brazil, but is highly coveted by the aquarium fish industry, and can be captive bred. It was already on Appendix III but Brazil wanted it to be listed on Appendix I, which made sense, although it meant the captive bred fish could not be traded across borders (unless there was a zero quota only for specimens from the wild). So, Brazil’s proposal was amended to move the species to Appendix II, which does strengthen protection for this tiny, black and white catfish, and probably reduces likelihood of poaching. Of course any CITES listing does nothing about the threat of hydro-electric development that threatens the remaining habitat of the zebrafish; that is up to Brazil. With a new government we can hope it do more than the previous government to protect its own magnificent heritage of wildlife.
Sea Cucumbers of the genus Thelenota: It’s a little complicated, but essentially the three species of sea cucumber in this genus are now on Appendix II.
There were numerous proposals for plant species I won’t get into here, and a broad assembly of important decisions made with regard research and information, administrative and funding issues, but in balance COP 19 was a very progressive meeting and good news for elephants, rhinos, Asian songbirds, freshwater turtles and various other herptiles, and sharks.