Some Big Wins for Nature at CITES

One international organization seems able to wade through the politics and get things done. It’s called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). At its meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, last week, delegates from 170 countries created new protections for hundreds of species of trees. There was also a big win for sharks and manta rays, which are increasingly threatened by Chinese demand for shark’s fin soup and traditional medicine. There were new efforts to combat international illegal trade in elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns. Increased illegal trade has decimated these regal creatures. In a press release, CITES Secretary-General John E. Scanlon said: “It takes enormous effort to negotiate treaties and then make them work. This is a big day for nature.”


According to CITES, international trade in a range of rainforest hardwoods like rosewoods and ebonies from Asia, Central America, and Madagascar will now be regulated. “Rapidly rising demand for these precious tropical hardwoods has led to serious concerns that unregulated logging is depleting populations of already rare species.” Indeed, rainforest hardwoods like rosewoods are increasingly rare. Removing these trees, which are deeply embedded in forest ecosystems, means carving out huge paths, which open these areas up to further devastation, and destroying habitat for native animal species. Regulating trade in the trees may then have positive impacts on the species that depend on them.


Recent studies show that somewhere between 25 and 75 million sharks are killed each year for their fins, which are used in shark’s fin soup and other traditional Chinese medicines. Last year saw an even greater jump, with 100 million harvested. Being finned is a particularly ghastly way to go for these animals, as they are often still alive when they are dumped back into the sea. Without their fins, sharks simply float to the bottom and suffocate or are eaten by other sharks.

Under the new agreement, international trade in the oceanic whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus), scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrma lewini), great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran), smooth hammerhead shark (Sphyrna zigaena) and the porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus), which are now harvested in record numbers, will now be regulated. BBC News reports that China and Japan tried to block action on these shark species at the last minute, but their efforts were thwarted by other countries. “From now onwards, these [sharks] will have to be traded with CITES permits and evidence will have to be provided that they are harvested sustainably and legally. These listings mark a milestone in the involvement of CITES in marine species.”


The bigger challenge may be changing cultural norms in China. One delegate from a shark fin-exporting country told The Guardian that the “cultural attachment to serving shark fin soup at weddings in China – now affordable for millions more in the country’s swelling middle class – was very strong and very hard to break.” The delegate said: “It would be like telling the French not to have champagne at their wedding.” (See photos of sharks facing extinction).

Manta Rays

Manta rays, which were described as “slow-growing, large-bodied migratory animals with small, highly fragmented populations,” and having amongst the “lowest reproductive rates of any marine animals,” will get some protections from over-exploitation. Manta gill plates are apparently in demand in some countries. The Guardian writes, “their populations are being devastated off Sri Lanka and Indonesia to feed a newly created Chinese medicine market in which their gill plates, used to filter food from the ocean, are sold as a purifying tonic.” Some 5,000 are killed each year, generating $5 million for traders. Interestingly, leaving them alive brings in around $140 million from tourists. That sounds like a no-brainer.



CITES writes that “strategic decisions” were adopted to collectively address the “elephant poaching crisis and escalating illegal trade in ivory.” For the first time, African countries also set aside their differences and united in support of action. “The general ‘rules of the game’ for trading in elephants or elephant products were thoroughly revised, modernized, and strengthened, addressing e-commerce, systematically using forensics, monitoring ivory stockpiles, controlling live elephant trade, dealing with countries that are persistently involved in illegal trade in ivory, etc.” CITES countries agreed to a “suite of targeted actions focusing on the 30 countries mostly involved in or affected by the illegal killing of elephants and the illegal trade in ivory.”

CITES certainly made some progress on protecting elephants, but perhaps not enough, failing to enact a ban on the sale of existing elephant tusk and rhino horn stockpiles. Time is running out for these grand animals, who form close knit family units. According to a powerful op-ed by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientists in The New York Times, a “staggering 62 percent of forest elephants” in Central Africa disappeared from 2002 to 2011. Just last year, more than 20,000 elephants were killed. Elephants attacked by poachers are known to become traumatized, as they witness family members killed. “Rogue” elephants, often young males, have then gone on rampages, basically fighting back at people. These traumatized animals also play a reduced ecological role, staying close to their home range. Wide-ranging, happy elephants distribute seeds through their fecal matter and act as landscape architects, culling certain trees and creating clearings.

The scientists write: “This killing is affecting behavior as these highly intelligent animals respond to the threats they face. They avoid roads not protected from poachers by wildlife guards. Once wide-ranging, the various population groups have become geographically isolated, hemmed in by a shroud of fear. They no longer garden on a grand scale, and they have been cut off from vital food, mineral and water resources they require to remain healthy. There is less time to feed and none for play or leisurely interactions between close and far-flung family. Nor do young elephants develop secure social relationships when living in a state of terror, or mourning slain family members — and elephants do mourn. When mothers are killed, babies still dependent on their milk die slowly from starvation, heartbroken and alone. We increasingly see groups of young elephants without knowledgeable females accompanying them. Lost with these matriarchs are traditions and collective memories passed down through many thousands of generations that guide their offspring to that isolated salt lick or patch of fruiting trees that helped to sustain them.”


The Guardian says nearly 20 nations now “face bans on all wildlife trade unless they crack down on the poaching, smuggling or sale of illegal ivory. The summit is also considering compulsory forensic testing of seized tusks, so the criminal chain can be traced and compulsory reporting of stockpiles of ivory, to prevent corruption or thefts.” International trafficking in ivory is done by “crime cartels every bit as ruthless as those trafficking narcotics, arms, and people,” argues the WCS scientists. Using forensic evidence from seized ivory may be key to combating poachers. Read more about the poaching crisis in a new report by CITES.


Member states asked international bodies to “prosecute members of organized crime groups implicated in rhinoceros-related crimes.” CITES said what’s needed is more national legislation to create local deterrents. “Countries should also submit rhino horn samples from seized specimens to designated accredited forensic laboratories. Countries were asked to consider stricter domestic measures to regulate the re-export of rhino horns products from any source, and develop and implement demand reduction strategies aimed at reducing the illegal movement and consumption of rhino horn products.”

According to Wild Aid, rhinos have existed on earth for more than 50 million years. Like elephants, they are “mega-grazers” and provide an important ecological function. They clear vegetation, maintain grasslands, reduce fire hazards, fertilize soil, and disperse and germinate seeds.

Rhino horns are used in traditional Chinese medicine and are believed to cure fevers, headaches, and skin disorders. Given that rhino horns are made of keratin (the same material that make up hair and fingernails), there’s no scientific merit to these claims.

Only five species of rhinos are left. Two-thirds of the world’s population is in southern Africa. More than 600 were poached in 2012.

Polar Bears

The United States and old Cold War-era foe Russia teamed up to propose blocking the trade in polar bear parts. Interestingly, Canada, which is home to two-thirds of the world’s remaining 20,000 wild polar bears, didn’t support the effort and the proposal failed to be adopted. The Guardian writes: “Canada […] argued there is not enough scientific evidence to show they are in danger of population collapse. Canada says it already has strict rules to ensure hunting is sustainable, and the Canadian delegation leader has dismissed the US proposal as ‘based more on emotion than science.'”

About 600 polar bears are killed each year in Canada, some in “traditional hunts” by Inuit and others by “trophy hunters.”

Given the precarious state of health for polar bears, who are increasingly under stress due to climate change, the lack of action can only be seen as a failure to protect an iconic yet dwindling species.

In another interesting piece of conservation news, Yale Environment 360 reports that the damage done to tropical forests by loggers may have been overstated. “Researchers have discovered a significant flaw in large swaths of ecological research into the impact of logging on tropical forests: Scientists have been dramatically overestimating the damage done by loggers, skewing conservation strategies.”

Image credit: Sharks on display in Indonesia / The Guardian, (2) Scalloped Hammerhead Shark / Tumblr, (3) Manta Ray and tourist / Manta Ray of Hope, (4) Elephant family / Great Plains Conservation

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