After the final votes were cast at the 16th conference of parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) last week, it became clear that something remarkable had happened.
Preliminary decisions earlier in the meeting, which ran from 3 to 14 March in Bangkok, had increased protection for a plethora of species and given cautious hope to zoologists and botanists. The final vote, by representatives of 170 of the states that are signed up to the treaty, rubber-stamped those decisions and sent researchers and conservationists out with broad smiles.
The conference of the parties to CITES deserves praise and recognition for placing a number of species of sharks and rays onto its Appendix II, which regulates trade in animals that are not deemed to be at immediate risk of extinction.
CITES delegates seem to have discovered an overdue and very welcome willingness to step on the toes of influential commercial interests that consistently oppose such restrictions, as they moved to protect marine species of huge commercial importance. They also saw the value in the wood from the trees: several species of tropical hardwoods were added to Appendix II.
Key agreements on trade in elephant ivory were strengthened, to specify the need for campaigns to reduce demand. This is the best — and possibly the only — way to save elephant populations in the long term, say many researchers who study the illegal trade that takes poached ivory from Africa to markets in countries such as China and Thailand.
There are already promising signs that public awareness of the threat to elephants is growing in China, as demonstrated by the campaigning of one of the country’s biggest (in more ways than one) celebrities, the basketball star Yao Ming. Similar campaigns against the trade in shark fins — whose status as a delicacy in some Asian countries is often blamed for declines in shark numbers — seem also to be finding a receptive audience.
At the CITES meeting, there was also success for attempts to clamp down on the ivory trade through increased forensic scrutiny of seized ivory and the stockpiles of tusks kept in many African nations. This is a significant victory. Such DNA analysis should provide crucial information on the illegal trade and open up new avenues to combat it (see Nature 494, 411–412; 2013). It is also a validation of the hard work and campaigning put into this problem. The solid evidence base produced by the CITES projects Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants and the Elephant Trade Information System has focused global attention on the resurging crisis of elephant slaughter.
“Delegates seem to have discovered a willingness to step on the toes of influential commercial interests.”
These successes carry important lessons. Popular and scientific reports of the threats to elephants, sharks and other species have helped to tip the political balance in favour of strengthening regulations. Non-governmental organizations deserve credit for raising the alarm, as do politicians for heeding the warnings.
Let us not get carried away. There were also disappointments at CITES — notably the failure to stop trade in polar bears and their parts. Some conservationists also wanted even tougher moves to clamp down on elephant and rhino poaching, including trade sanctions, which were rejected. Overall, however, the post-meeting mood was jubilant — and rightly so.
Serious questions must now be asked about the positive part that CITES can play in future marine conservation. If CITES wants to make progress in this sphere, then it must bring pressure to bear on specialist fisheries-management bodies, many of which have attracted criticism for allowing species such as tuna to be fished beyond sustainable limits. Those bodies have three years to put their houses in order before the next CITES meeting, or CITES will be obliged to do it for them. (The convention does not have a perfect record here, however — it failed in efforts to protect tuna populations in 2010, and dodged the issue at the latest meeting.)
The decisions passed last week will not by themselves save a single animal or plant. Proper monitoring is essential. To build on the successes of the meeting, funders must provide stable financing for continued research on the welfare of those species that now fall under the protection of CITES — and those that do not.
CITES took a great step forward last week. Its success should inspire all those who push for evidence-based policy. Perhaps most importantly, it shows that international meetings that seethe with dissonant agendas and actors are not always toothless talking shops.
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