Page last updated at 17:33 GMT, Tuesday, 6 April 2010 18:33 UK

Has CITES had its day?

Mark Jones
Mark Jones

Governments, conservationists and pro-trade groups have been trying to make what capital they can from their respective "victories" at last month's meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But, asks Mark Jones, is the 37-year-old convention successfully doing the job it was established to do?

Juvenile hammerhead shark
CITES... gets into difficulty when it tries to deal with species of high commercial value

CITES is mandated to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants, or products derived from them, does not threaten their survival.

An impressive-sounding 175 parties (member countries) are committed to implementing various protection measures for some 5,000 species of animal and 28,000 plants.

Yet at times on the floor of last month's conference in Doha, Qatar, one had the impression that the arguments and outcomes had more to do with protecting commercial interests than protecting wildlife.

The process of decision making has become intensely political. Parties choose to use scientific evidence to support their positions when it suits them, and refute the validity of the science when it doesn't.

Parties also use procedural technicalities to their political advantage. At times, during a heated debate, the conference resembles the bearpit of a national parliament.

Countries with vested interests in particular issues often send large delegations and high-ranking politicians and officials in order to persuade other parties to side with them on crucial votes.

Tuna at auction
Japan sent a hefty delegation to CITES to protect its bluefin interest

Faced with proposals to protect beleaguered stocks of Atlantic bluefin tuna and several species of shark, Japan sent around 50 delegates to coerce island states and developing nations into supporting their opposition.

It used claims of cultural bias, veiled threats, trade incentives and aid packages. Serving sushi derived from Atlantic bluefin tuna at a lavish reception for delegates the night before the vote was a particularly cynical move.

The Zambian delegation rolled out Chieftainess Chiawa, head of a prominent indigenous group, to play the "poverty card" in support of their efforts to secure permission from the conference to downlist their elephant population and sell off their stockpiled ivory; her pleas not to let her people starve when considering the fate of Zambia's valuable ivory stocks were impassioned, if somewhat lacking in logic.

Threatened organisms listed on three appendices depending on level of risk
Appendix 1 - all international trade banned
Appendix 2 - international trade monitored and regulated
Appendix 3 - trade bans by individual governments, others asked to assist
"Uplisting" - moving organism to a more protective appendix; "downlisting" - the reverse
Conferences of the Parties (COPs) held every three years
CITES administered by UN Environment Programme (Unep)

The European Union, whose 27 votes are a powerful force, votes as a bloc despite wide differences of opinion between EU member states on some issues.

Surely if a party firmly believes that science and evidence supports a particular view, it should be obliged to vote accordingly, and not be forced to vote differently by political arrangement?

The UK broke ranks by voting in favour of Atlantic bluefin tuna protection, incurring the wrath (and no doubt further sanctions down the line) of its EU partners.

These and other factors had a major bearing on the voting on a number of important proposals.

Attempts to gain CITES listings for marine species threatened with extinction because of overfishing, including bluefin tuna and hammerhead sharks, failed to gain the necessary support, in spite of UN Food and Agriculture Organization endorsement.

As a consequence, these species - like so many other overfished marine stocks - remain at the mercy of Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs), the very organisations that have presided over their near demise.

Poor arguments

Delegates in favour of maintaining trade in certain threatened species often claim that limiting trade will harm the economies of poor communities, or reduce the opportunity for people to obtain essential resources.

However, most shark fishing is carried out in international waters by large commercial vessels to serve the tastes of the growing middle classes in East Asia for shark fin soup, and 80% of Atlantic bluefin tuna ends up as sushi in Japanese restaurants.

Red and pink corals are disappearing fast in order to supply nothing more essential than markets for jewellery and trinkets.

Yet they all failed to gain protection.

In any event, there is nothing that will devastate a poor coastal community more than the complete collapse of a stock of fish, removing a potential resource for the generations to come.

Satanic salvation

Some of the decisions and resolutions adopted by the conference, though, will have important conservation benefits.

The conference operates on a budget of around $6m - not much more than the value of some of the yachts moored in Doha's bay outside the conference centre

Several species of Madagascan plants, Latin American amphibians, and reptiles have received CITES listings restricting international trade.

The unsung Satanic beetle from Bolivia gained an Appendix 2 listing to protect it from unscrupulous collectors.

Protection for many other species has been strengthened, including antelopes, rhinos, tigers, snakes and freshwater turtles; and the conference eventually rejected proposals from Tanzania and Zambia to be allowed to sell off their elephant ivory stockpiles.

Demand led

CITES seems to be most successful when dealing with species for which international trade poses a significant threat but where financial or economic considerations are limited.

It gets into difficulty when it tries to deal with species of high commercial value.

The international trade value of timber and fish products dwarfs that of all other species put together. Yet despite demand for many tree and fish species driving them towards extinction in the wild, the vast majority of attempts to introduce or strengthen protection for them failed at this conference.

French customs officer with tusk
The conference did not approve further sales in ivory

As we go forward, it is vital that the conference exercises its mandate to regulate trade in these species.

Exploitation of, and trade in, wildlife and wildlife products is driven by demand.

In an ideal world, we would control trade in endangered species by reducing the demand, by educating people in consumer states.

However, in the face of criticism concerning "interference with national sovereign rights", "cultural traditions" and "ignorance of poverty", such efforts are unlikely to succeed - certainly not in time to save many of the species this conference discussed.

So, while continuing with demand reduction efforts, the focus is on controlling the supply through national and international regulation, effective enforcement and severe penalties for offenders who try to obtain, ship or trade in wildlife products illegally.

The growing involvement of sophisticated, well-funded and increasingly armed criminal organisations in the illegal wildlife trade was recognised at the conference, along with the need for enforcement efforts to match this level of sophistication if it is to be effective.

Wildlife crime, long seen as "soft", is now up there with the trade in drugs, weapons and people in terms of its significance and the way it operates.

Only game in town?

So is CITES still an effective force for species conservation?

There is a feeling among many conservationists that Doha may have been our last chance to give real, meaningful protection for some species - and that we missed it.

However, for all its faults, CITES is the one international convention specifically targeted at controlling trade in endangered species, so it is the international legal framework with which we have to work.

The conference operates on a budget of around $6m - not much more than the value of some of the yachts moored in Doha's bay outside the conference centre.

Perhaps what CITES needs is a bigger budget, sharper teeth, and some way of taking some of the politics and vested interests out of its proceedings.

The protection of many species affected by trade requires international cooperation and protection, because they are captured in one country, transported through others, and consumed in others still.

If CITES won't provide this international protection, who will?

Mark Jones is programmes and fundraising director of Care for the Wild International, a UK-based conservation charity

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Mark Jones? Is CITES - and are other international conservation fora - dominated by political self-interest? Is there any alternative? Are decisions made at the Doha meeting likely to lead to extinctions?

Japan and China have a lot to answer for. It seems that 90% of endangered animals end up there in one way of the other; pelts, food, trinkets or medicines. Nothing will work until the new generation is educated in their destructive nature. We cannot continue to rape our only worlds resources because we will be the ones who ultimely suffer. It's a really sad state of affairs.
Nightshade, Swindon

What perhaps one need is more enforcement efforts. This article reminds me of one UN magazine feature on the analysis of CITES and the need to strengthen enforcement.
john Willy, Tokyo, Japan

I like very much your analysis of the meeting - however (and don't get me wrong I am a conservationist) the Zambia amended proposal (to sell rawhides, hunting trophies and live animals) was not given the right attention - this was not about selling ivory stocks...unfortunately a proposal that had some merits got wrapped up into a larger and quite emotional debate - where some lost perspective on what was agreed at Cop14 and failed to objectively assess whether the concerned expressed with regard to one off sales were true also for downlisting for these other specific uses. Despite the politicization of the debates, I think CITES remains the most effective international agreement; If I was a State party I would revisit the rules on secret voting: by increasing transparency and accountability - which vote by secret ballots defeats - we can perhaps de-politicize a little more future debates and perhaps through targeted consumer campaigns make sure that CITES parties are accountable to their constituencies.
Tanya Rosen, New York, USA

In response to Pierre's comment below, if the ivory trade were to be allowed in some countries, this would set a precedent and others would soon be clamouring for the same right. It would be impossible to control how the ivory was sourced and where it had come from. There would be widescale poaching and many elephants would suffer terribly. The decision not to allow Zambia and Tanzania to begin selling ivory is one of the best ones made at CITES.
Wendy De-Ville, Haywards Heath, West Sussex

The problem with CITES is that it does very little to enable or provide positive incentives for sustainable levels of harvesting. It seeks to regulate harvesting levels indirectly by placing restrictions or outright bans on international trade. This is a very weak and blunt (non-specific) policy instrument and, as the author notes, it "gets into difficulty when it tries to deal with species of high commercial value." In fact, it is possible that CITES is making matters worse for high-value terrestrial species such as rhinos, tigers and elephants. When market demand persists in the face of bans (as with illicit drugs), massive profit opportunities arise, attracting organized crime rings to step in and control the trade that governments cannot. As CITES progressively increases legal trade restrictions, it inexorably drives trade into the hands of these suppliers of last resort: the same criminal syndicates that smuggle arms and drugs and mostly remain beyond the reach of the law. The USA has recently pledged over $ 1.5 billion simply to try and control the illegal drugs trade with Mexico - a battle it will most likely lose. And CITES wants to control the worldwide trade in a multitude of different species products with its annual budget of $ 6 million? Who is going to win that battle? My guess is it won't be either CITES or conservation. Perhaps it is time to think outside the box!
Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, Cape Town, South Africa

Of course political self-interest plays an important role in international conservation fora, including CITES. But so what, as long as the principle of sustainable use is respected? The real tragedy of this CITES conference was the vote against Zambian and Tanzanina ivory sales. Both these countries have healthy, growing elephant populations which are coming into ever-increasing conflict with humans. Why should they not be allowed to benefit from ivory sales as a form of compensation, just because Kenya and a handful of others are too corrupt to stop elephant poaching? For marine resources the picture is completely different: they are universally on the verbe of collapse and should - ratinally speaking - be given at least a decade of no commercial exploitation to see if they can still recover. Unfortunately rationality is not Homo sapiens's strong point...
Pierre du Plessis, Windhoek, Namibia

Why is the funding not increased for instance from taxes on trades in already restricted fish stocks to enable a more powerful organisation? It seems that all the UN is is an agent to dissaprove of things yet do nothing in the face of any opposition from rich countries or poor ones playing the economic card.
James Higham, Edinburgh

Living in Japan, it was interesting to see how NHK news (the Japanese equivalent of the BBC) covered the run up to the Doha conference and the potential trade ban on Atlantic blue fin tuna. They put it across as a battle for a Japanese tradition that would be at risk of dying out if the trade ban took place, with an attitude of "we all love to eat tuna, don't we? So we should be allowed to continue" (accompanied by footage of young children tucking into some sushi). They also featured the traditional fish market in Tokyo, and the small number of traders who might feel an economic pinch if the ban took place. Not once did they mention that this species is critically endangered, and I doubt that many Japanese people know that it is. Unfortunately for Japan, Japan won this battle at Doha (an own goal). When Atlantic blue fin tuna does go (commercially) extinct, maybe in as little as three years according to some, the international community will blame the Japanese for eating this fish to extinction (80% is eaten in Japan). In the case of Japan, it put very short term political interests first, and risked tarnishing its international image in the future. With short-sighted views and actions such as these, attempts at protecting commercially important species are doomed to failure.
R. Smith, Japan

The problem - the question - with all of these protecting bodies is; "are the actually mandated to tell us to stop" - sure they list things, and they are a forum for the various parties to argue their cases. But anywhere in all this, are they actually designed and expected to say "Stop" - "you've had all there is to have; now you have to find some other way of living; you have to stop exploiting this (what ever it is) - not simple agree new quota's, or launch another scientific study; you simply have to s t o ppp!" Or isn't that actually in their mandate ? Steven
Steven Walker, Penzance

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