Nine animals received increased protections from international trade, and more than 130 species won protections for the first time at a two-week summit aimed at managing the multibillion-dollar cross-border wildlife trade while preventing endangered animals and plants from sliding to extinction.
Not every country went home happy. “What I sense in the room, and what I’m concerned about is there’s a bitterness,” says Ivonne Higuero, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). “There’s a discussion of ‘This is not working for me, it hasn’t been working for me for some time.’”
From August 17 to August 28, 182 countries and the European Union considered proposals for more than 500 species, and their votes often broke down based on political, economic, and geographic lines. Southern African nations, for example, squared off against many other African nations on their differing approaches to elephant conservation and how to fund it.
Until now, CITES decisions about levels of protection for species have been based exclusively on science—knowledge accumulated by biologists and ecologists, for example—but disagreements arose over how much weight CITES should now give to other factors, including the needs and desires of rural communities that live alongside wildlife. Economic and social benefits, for example, such as revenue from hunting and ecotourism to benefit villagers, are increasingly seen as integral to discussions about levels of protection.
Every three years CITES members convene to discuss the treaty, which was enacted in 1975. Eight themes emerged from this year’s conference. (Read more about the major CITES decisions here).
1. Marine animals are gaining a needed safety net.
Decisions to increase protections for mako sharks, wedgefish, and guitarfish came on the heels of a resolution proposed by Antigua and Barbuda to stop all marine species from being listed under CITES until it can be demonstrated that CITES protections do in fact make a difference. The resolution was roundly rejected, but this wasn’t a new notion.
“There’s long been this idea that somehow CITES isn’t a tool for marine species, and that idea to us is absurd,” says Matt Collis, director of international policy at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
CITES was set up to deal with terrestrial species, leading some to say that marine species should be excluded and that regulation should be left to regional fishery bodies. This idea is a relic from when CITES began in the 1970s, says Luke Warwick, assistant director of the sharks and rays program for the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society.
This year, Warwick says it seems that a consensus was finally reached: In a “weird” but “positive anticlimax,” Japan, which opposed the mako shark proposal, surprised conservationists when it didn’t reopen the mako shark debate in the final session. That’s when proposal decisions must be confirmed or rejected and countries have a chance to reopen debates. This shows the idea that CITES is for sharks is becoming mainstream, Warwick says.
“There’s a growing recognition that CITES does marine and it does it well,” he says.
2. The exotic pet trade is putting an increasing strain on dozens of threatened species.
More than a third of the proposals this year related to reptiles and amphibians that are now threatened, largely because of their popularity as exotic pets in the United States, the EU, and elsewhere. Those species include the Indian star tortoise and the tokay gecko. Two otter species—the Asian small-clawed otter and smooth-coated otter—similarly have suffered from their popularity among exotic pet collectors, particularly in Southeast Asia. Collectively, more than 20 of the 56 proposals up for CITES consideration had listings spurred by the pet trade. Almost all mustered enough votes to increase protections. Only one proposal—to list all 104 species of glass frogs—failed to pass.
3. How should countries fund conservation? CITES didn’t provide answers.
The long-standing debate over how to fund conservation efforts came up again this year, notably in the debate over elephant and rhino protections.
Eswatini proposed opening its commercial rhino trade, which would allow it to sell abroad its nearly 730-pound stockpile of horn, valued at $9.9 million. Fears that a legal trade would stimulate demand and smuggling of rhino horn led to the rejection of the proposal, but the question remains unanswered: How will countries such as Eswatini fund conservation?
Some conservationists have suggested ecotourism or donations could help. During the debates, the representative from Eswatini angrily invited opposing countries and nonprofit organizations to step up and pay to protect its rhinos.
“Opinion seems to come not with responsibility,” he said of the opposition. “If the finance is