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CITES CoP15 – The Winners and Losers

There were tears of both joy and despair following a mixed bag of results from last month’s CITES Conference in Doha, Qatar.   The stakes were high.  Some Governments and organisations attending the meeting believed that CITES protection could prevent species under threat from the multi-billion dollar international trade in wild animals and plants, from spiralling towards extinction.  Others, however, rail against the impact of trade restrictions that CITES can impose.

For some species, including elephants, the meeting was a resounding success!  For others, including tuna, sharks and polar bears, the outcome was extremely disappointing.

Below is a brief analysis of some of the winners and losers from CITES CoP15:

WINNER: African Elephants:  Proposals by Tanzania and Zambia to reduce CITES protection for their elephants and allow trade in more than 110,000 kg of ivory to China and Japan were comprehensively REJECTED by CITES. This is a great achievement for the 23 African countries that form the African Elephant Coalition, as well as for Born Free, the Species Survival Network and all those organisations which battled so tirelessly for this success; not to mention the 500,000 people from around the world who signed the bloody ivory petition in opposition to the proposals.  

However, we must not become complacent about the challenges ahead. Elephant poaching and ivory smuggling remain serious problems and Born Free is seeking funding to support the African Elephant Coalition protect their vulnerable elephant populations – find out more at

LOSER: Atlantic Bluefin Tuna: Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that Atlantic bluefin tuna are on the road to extinction due to massive overfishing (both legal and illegal), Monaco’s Proposal to include Atlantic bluefin tuna on the list of species that receive protection from CITES was REJECTED, even though this would not have prevented trade.  This defeat was a bitter blow and left conservationists wondering what more could possibly be needed to convince the world that heavily commercially exploited fish species should be protected by CITES.  However, with the price of an individual tuna reaching as much as $175,000, it seemed clear that economic interests, not the interests of the species, played a dominant role in the final, lamentable decision – for more information, see Will Travers and Charles Clover on Al Jazeera discussing this issue below.

WINNER: Rhinos:  Following shocking reports of widespread rhino poaching (over 100 animals in South Africa alone in 2009), and illegal trade in rhino horn, the CITES Parties APPROVED measures proposed by Kenya to strengthen protection of wild rhino populations.  These measures include placing a greater emphasis on consumer States (such as China) to tackle the problem and urges improved levels of enforcement through regional and international cooperation between enforcement agencies.

LOSER: Polar Bears: In addition to the serious threat posed by climate change, polar bears are also hunted and their furs traded in significant numbers.  In Canada alone, 689 polar bears are legally killed each year and around 300 of these polar bears are exported annually. Sadly, an attempt by the United States to regulate this trade by increasing the level of protection the bears receive under CITES, was REJECTED.

WINNER: Tigers: Following heated and lengthy debates between China, the EU and India, an agreement was eventually reached regarding the protection of tigers from illegal international trade (which includes trade in skins, and trade in body parts for Traditional Chinese Medicine).  The agreement focused on enforcement and intelligence sharing, as well as upholding an important CITES Decision that tiger ‘farms’, where tigers are intensively bred, should be phased-out sometime in the future and so eliminate their potential to supply tiger products for commercial sale.  .

LOSER: Sharks: Proposals to list several shark species on CITES, including the porbeagle, spiny dog fish, scalloped hammerhead, and oceanic white tip were all REJECTED. Currently between 70 and 100 million sharks are butchered every year, mostly for their fins (for Shark Fin Soup) and also to be sold as ‘rock salmon’ in fish and chip shops. Heralded as a dramatic blow to the better conservation of marine species by CITES, some conservationists fear that already threatened species of shark will be one step closer to extinction by the times CITES rolls around in 2013.  

WINNER: Bobcats: Bobcats are the most heavily traded wild cat species, with tens of thousands of skins exported from the United States every year.  An attempt by the US to remove bobcats from the protection of CITES was REJECTED.  This was due in large part to the fact that bobcat fur looks very similar to that of the critically endangered Iberian Lynx, rendering it almost impossible for enforcement officers to tell the difference between the two species.

For further information, please contact Shelley Waterland:

During the closing ceremony of CoP15, Will Travers summed up the feelings of many delegates by saying: “We must pay attention to the scientific evidence before us and make sure that evidence is fully reviewed and analysed before it is used to inform the decisions of the Parties.  We must also never lose sight of the Precautionary Principle on which CITES is founded. The late Prince Bernhardt of the Netherlands, speaking to CITES many years ago, expressed it so well when he said. “If there is doubt, let the benefit of the doubt go to the species.”  

He concluded, “I have been approached by many people this week asking whether there is a future for CITES. My response has been that without CITES, international wildlife trade issues would be addressed in a fragmented and uncoordinated way with the risk that nations would put their own narrow self-interest first. CITES, at its best, allows the international community to put the needs of wild species of fauna and flora first, especially when it is as a result of the actions of one species – ourselves – that they have become imperilled in the first place.”

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