New controls to halt trafficking of endangered species

Posted: 14 October 2004

An international conference convened to crack down on the illegal trade in endangered species has successfully adopted better trade controls to help protect African elephants, and key marine and rainforest species.

African elephants, Etosha National Park, Namibia. © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
African elephants, Etosha National Park, Namibia. © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
African elephant, Loxodonta africana. Breeding herd on the move. Etosha National Park, Namibia© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
The action plan agreed at the 13th Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade (CITES) goes some way in halting the unregulated domestic ivory markets across Africa. It commits every African country with a domestic ivory market to either strictly control the trade or shut it down altogether with no exception, preventing the poaching of thousands of elephants that are killed each year to feed these markets. "Elephants are a priority species on the CITES agenda and the African action plan on ivory trade is one of the most positive outcomes of this meeting," said Dr Susan Lieberman, Head of WWF delegation at CITES. "It is an historical result because this time, all African range States have agreed to address their domestic ivory markets." The listing of the humphead wrasse, a giant coral reef fish, on CITES Appendix II, which allows commercial trade but only under permit, confirms the Convention's new role to better regulate the trade in commercially exploited marine fish. The great white shark was also listed on Appendix II. Both the humphead wrasse and great white shark reproduce slowly and suffer from unsustainable fishing practices. It is hoped that the improved trade controls will help avoid further depletion of their populations. Cetaceans also gained trade protection. The Convention members voted to prohibit commercial trade of the Irrawaddy dolphin. This critically endangered cetacean now joins species like great apes and big cats on Appendix I, which allows no commercial trade.

Minke whales remain on Appendix I, after CITES massively rejected Japan's proposals to downlist them to allow whale meat trade. With regard to plant species, Ramin, an Asian rainforest tree, was listed in Appendix II. Its survival in the wild is threatened by illegal logging and uncontrolled trade. Its listing will indirectly benefit the both endangered tiger and orang-utan which in forests where Ramin is grown.

Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica). © Anna Lushchekina/IUCN
Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica). © Anna Lushchekina/IUCN
Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica) has undergone major population declines over the last decade as a result of poaching for meat an for export of horns for Chinese traditional medicine© Anna Lushchekina/IUCN
Positive action was also taken to improve conservation and control of trade in the saiga antelope, sturgeon, turtles, Asian big cats, great apes and agarwood.

Curbing the trade

The plan should go some way to meeting the immense problem of the illegal trade in wildlife which was highlighted at the start of the meeting.

The illegal trade in wildlife involves organised criminal networks, sophisticated poaching and smuggling techniques, fraudulent trade permits, corruption and violence towards enforcement officers, said a law enforcement group convened to make recommendations to the Convention.

It reported that authorities lacked resources and essential experience to meet the challenges they faced in tackling this crime. In addition, it noted that there was not enough co-ordination and information-sharing among various enforcement authorities.

After habitat destruction, the illegal trade in wildlife remains the second greatest threat to the world's endangered species. Many wildlife smugglers deal in products that are worth more, per kilo, than cocaine or heroin.

Shawls made from the fine wool of the Tibetan antelope, for example, can cost over US$15,000 each. The caviar trade is full of organized crime networks.

The law enforcement group called for governments to give greater recognition to the seriousness of wildlife crime. Increases in the status, authority, training and quality of equipment of wildlife law enforcement personnel would help make headway in curbing the trafficking of endangered species, as would more use of and easier access to forensic science.

Greater international and regional co-operation is needed, as well as better co-ordination of investigations and more use of CITES enforcement task forces, said the group.

As to funding, it suggested increased support to the wildlife enforcement work of the CITES Secretariat, Interpol and the World Customs Organization.

The next CITES conference (CoP14) will take place in The Netherlands.