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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Saiga Antelope, Sea Cucumbers, Parachute Spiders and Pancake Tortoises Get U.S. Support at CITES

  saiga antelope on a beachA saiga antelope. Photo by Andrey Giljov/Creative Commons

This month, delegates from around the globe will meet for the world’s leading forum to debate and discuss issues related to international wildlife trade. The 18th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP18) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, will run from August 17 to 28 in Geneva, Switzerland. This meeting was initially scheduled to take place from May 23 to June 3 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, but was postponed and re-located due to security and other concerns after the heinous bombings of three churches and three hotels in Colombo on April 21.

The United States began its public process to gather and evaluate information related to species involved in international trade and improving implementation of the convention more than two years ago, culminating in the submission of 11 documents we advanced or co-sponsored to be considered by CITES member countries at the meeting. We considered all input as we evaluated documents submitted by other countries and developed negotiating positions on the full agenda of CoP18.

Not sure what CITES is or how it works? Visit our website for a quick overview, or to view each of the documents we submitted or co-sponsored.

Here is an overview of our goals going into CoP18 this year, and a discussion of some of the species that are part of the agenda:

Combating Wildlife Trafficking by Strengthening Protections for Species Vulnerable to Illegal International Trade

Saiga antelope are a species native to Central Asia that live in steppe or grassland habitats. They migrate in large herds that can contain up to 1,000 individuals. Unfortunately, their populations have declined more than 80 percent in the past 30 years. In addition to disease and harsh winters impacting their populations, illegal and unsustainable trade in saiga threatens its survival. Male saiga are targeted and killed for their horns, which are smuggled to other countries and sold  for use in traditional Asian medicine. Thanks to the efforts of Mongolia with support from the United States, the CITES Parties will consider transferring saiga antelope to Appendix I, which would provide the species with the greatest level of CITES protection.

  pancake tortoise in small crack in rockA pancake tortoise. Photo by Thomas Leuteritz/USFWS

At the last meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties, the United States achieved increased CITES protections for six African and Middle Eastern softshell turtle species, by working with Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Nigeria and Togo. Following on these successes, the United States will co-sponsor a proposal with Kenya to transfer Pancake tortoises to Appendix I. This species gets its name from its flat and flexible shell, which in addition to its speed, allows it to hide and rest under rock crevices. Decreasing availability of suitable of habitat for pancake tortoises and their value in the pet trade are the key threats to their survival. Evidence shows that when protections for freshwater turtles and tortoises are strengthened in one region, demand in other regions for unprotected species increases. The United States supports a strategic, global approach to freshwater turtle and  tortoise conservation, to stay ahead of this trend and curb this boom-and-bust cycle.

The United States will also consider providing Appendix I protections to other species such as several Asian species of otters, black crowned-cranes, several butterflies, and a variety of reptiles, including lizards, geckos and turtles.

Following the successful uplisting of pangolins to Appendix I at CoP17, the United States  continues to support improved implementation of the Appendix I protections, including actions that further conservation of pangolins in range countries and combating  trafficking in pangolin scales. Similarly at CoP18, the United States will strive to maintain and improve implementation of strong protections for other species impacted by wildlife trafficking including elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, eels, coral, sharks and rays, great apes and jaguars, among others. The United States supports efforts to combat wildlife trafficking through a variety of strategies, including law enforcement, financial assistance, behavior-change and awareness-raising initiatives, and capacity-building.

Ensuring Animals and Plants are Legally and Sustainably Traded to Benefit  People  for Generations to Come

  blck sea cucumber  with white spots on ocean floorOne of the species of sea cucumber proposed for inclusion in CITES Appendix II. Photo by Lesley Clements/Creative Commons

Sea cucumbers have been harvested from oceans for hundreds of years as food. They are an important source of nutrition in Asia and their derivatives are also sometimes incorporated into medicinal products. They have an important ecological role,  too, which is similar to that of earthworms. You might describe them as recyclers for the ocean. Their economic value and the ease of collecting them from the ocean floor without needing complex fishing techniques or expensive equipment makes them vulnerable to over-collection. Despite local protections and legal fishing seasons and limits, in some parts of the world illegal fishing has led to depleted populations of sea cucumbers. There are more than 1,700 species worldwide. Three species found in the Indo-Pacific region, known as teatfish, are distinguished by protrusions from their bodies that make them easier to identify. Available data indicate that they are among the sea cucumber species most threatened by increasing trade and demand in the past 25 years. The United States is co-sponsoring a proposal with the European Union, Kenya, Senegal and the Seychelles to add these three species to Appendix II, to bring the strength of the global community to the task of ensuring these sea cucumbers are only internationally traded if it is legal and sustainable.

 gray  and blue gecko with orange spots and big eyes A tokay gecko. Photo by Marcus Budak/Creative Commons

Tokay geckos are colorful lizards native to Asian countries. They are frequently traded for use in traditional Asian medicine and as pets. They get their names from their territorial call, which sounds like “tok-ay.”To ensure that trade can be sustainable in the long term for these geckos, the United States is co-sponsoring a proposal with the European Union, India and the Phillipines to include them in Appendix II, which would provide CITES protections to regulate the trade.

tan spider withelectric bluelegs with splashes of yellow  A parachute spider. Photo by William Foster/Creative Commons

Ornamental / Parachute spiders are a type of arboreal tarantula native to Sri Lanka and India.   Some of the spiders parachute down from trees with their silk, giving them their name.  They are often large and beautiful colors, making them a popular animal for pets and collectors, and are therefore, targeted by traders. To date, the international trade in this group of spiders has largely been unregulated, which combined with habitat loss, constitutes the main threat to the survival of these species. The United States and Europe are key importers of the spiders. Sri Lanka submitted a proposal co-sponsored by the United States to list all 15 species of ornamental parachute spiders in Appendix II to ensure these spiders are internationally traded legally and sustainably.

Other proposals for CoP18 would move species to Appendix II, so they would receive some new protections or go to a lower level of protection due to recovery of species populations. Some of the higher-profile documents and topics that the United States will follow include proposals to list giraffes, several species of trees and the wooly mammoth. While the wooly mammoth is an extinct species, its remnant tusks are traded and some speculate it could be used to launder elephant ivory.

  GIRAFFE AMID TREESA giraffe in South Africa. Photo by Danielle Kessler/USFWS

Giraffes – of which there are nine subspecies – live in at least 18 African countries, and are now extinct in at least five African countries. Giraffes have a low reproductive output, making them vulnerable to overexploitation. Females become sexually mature at three to four years of age, but the average age at first birth is 6.4 years. In the wild, giraffes can live to about 25 years. While international trade may not be the primary cause of decline in wild giraffe populations, it may have an additive effect when combined with the main causes of habitat loss, civil unrest, poaching for bushmeat--- and ecological changes.

A proposal submitted by the Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Senegal would include giraffes in Appendix II. By doing so, CITES would provide a mechanism to regulate and monitor trade in giraffes, while generating - for the first time - the data needed to ensure that this trade is not detrimental to the survival of the species.

Improving the Way CITES Works

 class poses Participants in a recent cohort of the CITES Masters Course. Photo by International University of Andalusia Baeza

In addition to listing species in CITES Appendices, the United States and other countries will discuss documents and proposals aimed at implementing CITES more effectively. Among them is a document submitted by the  United States that calls for increased transparency, accountability and effectiveness in CITES capacity-building efforts.  It proposes a three-year process for development of a  framework for capacity-building, which will assist the Convention in prioritizing and monitoring progress of investment in countries targeted for improved CITES capacity.  CITES is only as effective as each country’s ability to administer it.  The needs are significant and CITES authorities often lack adequately trained personnel  and tools to effectively ensure legal and sustainable international trade. For the United States, improving global CITES implementation is key to our efforts to combat wildlife trafficking, recognizing that if CITES is the global framework for legal and sustainable international trade is strong, trading wildlife illegally will be harder.  We have partnered with the International University of Andalucia (UNIA) in Spain to strengthen CITES authorities in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean through the CITES master course, which provides conservation professionals with practical training in CITES.  The impact of the course is demonstrated by the extensive network of graduates who hold key leadership positions in the CITES community.

  stacks of  lumberConfiscated rosewood that was destined for illegal non-permitted shipment. Photo by Wildlife Conservation Society

The United States is supportive of changes to species protections at CoP18 that maintain conservation benefit while reducing the regulatory burden on businesses. For instance, there are a number of documents focused on amending commodities subject to CITES controls under the current timber listings to reflect sensible policy for large groups of species such as rosewood, which is used in a variety of wood products including musical instruments, furniture,and even pet coffins. This year, a proposal to list Spanish cedar will need to be considered such that it balances conservation for the most threatened species of these trees with a more practical understanding of the potential permitting demands it could create.

Along these lines, the United States has also co-sponsored documents with several countries that reflect an ethos of “smart regulation.” Documents for frankincense, marine ornamental fish and songbirds are intended to collect data through CITES and countries so that it can be ascertained whether species currently in trade need to be listed. Finally, seahorses are listed in CITES Appendix II, and the United States has co-sponsored a document with Monaco to present a road map on how to improve CITES implementation that ensures sustainable trade in seahorses.

Be sure to check back for other CITES news and topics of interest in the coming weeks.


I expected less of the US! Has this administration not affected our support of CITES?Or have I missed something - I read it quickly. I am saddened that protecting endangered trees is first considered in light of industrial 'demands it could create'. Maybe it's time not to use wild trees at all?
# Posted By | 8/16/19 6:49 AM
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