Ebony and Ivory – was there perfect harmony at CITES?

And so it’s over, for another three years. The CITES conference in Bangkok has left me exhausted, frustrated, in some cases excited, and nursing a nasty bout of some kind of local flu. Was it worth it? Here’s my end of term report for CITES 2013.

Ivory:  C-

Although pre-meeting things were looking up as Tanzania withdrew its application to downlist their ivory (and therefore sell their stockpiles), unfortunately then CITES started as it meant to go on – with ambiguity and confusion.  On opening, the Thai Prime Minister announced to the world that her country was banning their domestic legal ivory trade. Or did she? Our initial reaction was that the statement was full of holes, and now most others agree (read more here). Later, a proposal aimed at extending the period within which countries cannot discuss legal sales of ivory was withdrawn. This would have bought vital time for more evidence to be gathered on these one-off sales, and for countries to tighten up their domestic markets. This was an opportunity missed, and potential legal-sales of ivory will be back on the agenda next time.

At the very end of the meeting, penalties for those countries seen as not doing enough about poaching were discussed. Countries were named and shamed, but no penalties were imposed – sanctions ‘might’ be endorsed in a year’s time if no action is taken. One useful step however was taken – large ivory seizures must be DNA tested to try and improve traceability.

Hint of progress, but must do better.



Polar Bears: F

As blogged already (see here), CITES failed polar bears. Whether one blames politics, or science, block voting or cultural sensitivities, it ultimately doesn’t matter: hunters will continue to be allowed to visit Canada, hunt and kill one of their most prized assets, and take the bodies home. And Canada, with CITES’ blessing, is happy for them to do this.










Sharks and Manta Rays: A

Some great work done here, in the face of intense opposition.  Actually being able to protect sea creatures is no easy task as they don’t respect national borders, so this was quite a step – but a vital one. As people are now starting to realise, sharks, once vilified due to a certain film, are essential to the ocean ecosystems – but we’re slaughtering more than 100million of them each year, mostly for luxury shark fin soup.

Manta rays are also endangered, this time because their gills are used in traditional Asian medicines (the cause of many of CITES’ problems). This was a positive move for the rays themselves, but also for tourism – swimming with mantas is now big business. Recognising that wildlife is worth more alive than dead (and as long as tourist operators act responsibly to protect the animals) is an important step and applies equally for lions, rhinos and elephants.

Excellent work.

Rhino: D

Despite the horrific rise in poaching of rhino horn over the last couple of years (2012 was a record in terms of the animals killed, this year will take the numbers to new heights), there was little on the agenda for this vital subject. A proposal from Kenya to put a temporary zero export quota on rhino horn from South Africa and Swaziland – which would have given the range countries and the ‘market’ countries like Vietnam time to get their enforcement systems in place – was dropped. Politics?

And in the conference backrooms, South Africa held a series of meetings which led up to a call for rhino horn to be legalised at the next CITES meeting (which will be held in, yes, South Africa). You can read more about this in our ‘rhino-conomics’ press release here, but the gist is that the gamekeepers who look after the majority of rhinos in SA want to legalise the trade, and they have a lot of power. This subject will be back with a vengeance.

Not paying enough attention.







Turtles, manatees, ebony et al: B+

I can’t cover every listing here, but there were some good decisions made both in terms of animal species, and flora such as woods like ebony, which needs (and got) protection. For us, the listing of several species of turtle was very welcome.

There are many types of turtle, and many of those are under severe threat from either consumption, or from the pet trade. As a charity we are concerned with animal-tourism – which includes being careful what you eat when you go abroad, as you may be eating an endangered animal. And also we’re a member of the ENDCAP coalition which campaigns on issues regarding captive animals – therefore any move which might make pet owners think twice about contributing to the demise of a species is good news.

Working hard, some excellent results.

Overall: B+

Anyone who understands the workings of international politics, and UN procedures, knows how hard it is to ever actually achieve anything. So to come out of this CITES convention with some really positive results has to be applauded. Of course, as with any meeting, the decisions will only be effective if the delegates follow up their action points – so we’ll be watching carefully.

The downside is the political nature of many of the decisions, and the influence of certain major powers; this is intensified by the fact that most of the big decisions are taken by secret ballot, allowing countries to hide what they are doing. This issue was actually raised and countries were asked to vote on whether ballots should be secret – unfortunately, the ballot was secret…  Commendably, many delegates began rocking the boat by openly declaring their vote at the end of ballots – if this continues, we may see a fairer system come into place.

So, as ever, CITES was a mix of the good, the bad, and the what-were-you-thinking (delegates could buy live rays, and crocodile skins, in the corridors outside meetings designed to prevent trade in endangered species. Sigh). And also as ever, CITES can’t win these battles alone – international communities must act to ensure our wildlife is protected, and organisations like ourselves must keep pushing them until they do so.