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CITES in Santiago
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CITES in Santiago

by Yvonne Sadovy

The recent CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meeting, held in Chile, Santiago, ended on some high notes in mid-November after two exhausting weeks of debate, politics and a lot of sitting around. This was the 12th Conference of the Parties (CoP): the term Parties refers to the countries that are signatories to the Convention, each of which can send delegations to the Conference and vote on the various proposals discussed for species listing on CITES Appendices. There are currently 159 Parties (Kuwait was welcomed for the first time at this CoP), including China. I was very fortunate to have been part of the IUCN (World Conservation Union) delegation as Chair of the Grouper/Wrasse Specialist Group. I was invited because of the United States proposal to list the humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus, on Appendix II. IUCN had a special role as an intergovernmental organization (IGO) at the Conference and is considered to be the primary scientific authority on species conservation status. The IGO status enabled IUCN to comment frequently on the various proposals up for consideration by the Conference.

So why is CITES important for conservation and what is the significance of the different CITES Appendices? CITES is the only widely recognized, respected and implemented international instrument that deals with sustainable international trade in wild species. It involves 3 appendices. The best known is Appendix I that prohibits any commercial trade in species that are already endangered, such as tigers, gorillas or the coelacanth. In practice, the most important Appendix is II. This includes species that are not endangered but may become so if trade is not regulated. An inclusion on Appendix II requires that listed species are properly monitored and regulated to ensure that any trade (all of which requires a licence or permit) is sustainable and comes from a legal source. Appendix II includes about 95% of the 30,000 species listed CITES. Appendix III includes species at the request of a particular Party that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. More details can be found on http://www.cites.org/index.html.

One of the biggest successes was the inclusion in Appendix II, for the very first time, of fishes of significant commercial importance. Two species of shark, the basking shark Cetorhinus maximus and the whale shark, Rhincodon typus and 32 species of seahorses (genus Hippocampus) were listed. These listings represent landmark decisions because, until now, the Convention has not played an important role in global fisheries. Why is this? There are several reasons but probably three that are most important. The first is that it is only relatively recently that we are coming to realize, and accept, that commercially exploited fishes could possibly be threatened with extinction (or rather, that there is no reason to believe that they are any different from other plants and animals in this respect). The second reason is that, for many commercially important species, there are regional fishery management authorities or the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations that can, or at least should, deal with threats to the species. In such cases, it is argued, CITES is not needed. However, FAO does not manage fish and many areas have no regional authority (think of the South China Sea for example). The third reason is that there is insufficient information on most fishes to be able to properly assess their conservation status. While it is certainly true that population status of aquatic marine species are difficult to evaluate fishery management is often based on similarly inadequate data. Unfortunately, it may be the best information available and the sole to act upon. Clearly such arguments are no longer excuses to exclude fishes from CITES Appendices. In case you were wondering, the humphead wrasse was not listed but fell just 7 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed. Given declining numbers in this species I hope that the next CoP will afford it the attention it needs, especially given the successes with commercial fishes.

Among the other important outcomes from the CoP were listings for mahogany, 26 species of Asian turtles, several parrots, protection for several threatened species in Madagascar, and strict controls for trade in African elephant ivory stockpiles. Mahogany Swietenia macrophylla (neotropical populations including logs, veneer sheets, plywood and sawn wood) was listed on Appendix II after 10 years of discussion while the turtles were included because of declining numbers, habitat loss and illegal trade. The yellow-headed parrot Amazona oratrix, yellow-naped parrot A. auropalliata., and blue-headed macaw Ara couloni were transferred from Appendix II to Appendix I because population numbers have continued to decline due to trade and habitat loss.

The Santiago meeting is considered to have been one of the most politicized of all CoPs but it also made ground-breaking progress with listings such as mahogany and fishes. One thing is clear; for species that are heavily traded, vulnerable and not effectively managed, CITES is a critically important management and conservation tool–.for many species, it is the only one.



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