Floris Behnke: elephants

How the CITES Wildlife Conference affects African mammals

Elephants, rhinos and giraffes took centre stage at this year’s conference to discuss the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The conference revealed several long-standing disagreements in the world of conservation and left a fair amount of controversy in its wake. But you may be thinking – what exactly is CITES, what role does it play in conservation, and what do these decisions mean for Africa’s wildlife?

What is CITES?

CITES is an international agreement among 183 countries, officially called Parties, to cooperate with each other when trading plants, animals, or any products from them (e.g. fur, horns and wood). The focus is on species that may be threatened with extinction due to too much international trade, amongst other threats. Although only the governments vote and make decisions, a large number of non-governmental organisations working in the environment attend these meetings to provide technical expertise and input.

Every three years, a Conference of the Parties (CoP) is held to discuss and amend the original Convention. This year was the 18th CoP (CoP18) to be held since the first one in 1973. CoP18 was finally hosted in Geneva, Switzerland from the 17th-28th of August 2019. The United Nations Envrionment Programme administers CITES and organises the conferences on behalf of the member governments.

Wayne Grieveson: hippo in the water

What role does CITES play in conservation?

There are a few key points we must understand about CITES before we can discuss the results of CoP18.

  • The CITES agreement is entirely voluntary. Countries can leave the agreement if they feel it is not helping them manage their trade or conserve their wildlife. If they agree to be part of CITES, however, they are legally bound by the decisions made at each CoP. Because almost all of the countries in the world are signatories to CITES, it would be difficult for a non-signatory to ignore CITES rules altogether if they want to trade with other countries.
  • CITES is about international trade and cooperation. It does not make laws for countries to apply nationally. Each country is still recognised as a sovereign state that can make its wildlife laws. Domestic markets for products like elephant ivory are beyond the reach of CITES, which only comes into play when those products are exported or imported between countries.
  • International trade is just one of many threats facing plants and animals today. Listing a species on CITES does not stop the other threats like habitat destruction, human-wildlife conflict, pollution and climate change, to name a few.
  • CITES Appendices I, II and III are the key documents discussed at each CoP. A species listed in Appendix I is considered threatened with extinction, and may only be traded under very specific circumstances. For example, Black rhinos are in Appendix I. Species in Appendix II are not yet threatened with extinction, but international trade has been highlighted as a cause for concern. Hippos are one of Africa’s mammals in Appendix II. Commercial trade is allowed for these species, but it must be regulated using an import/export system. Appendix III is reserved for species that particular countries would like to manage better but will need cooperation from other countries to achieve this. For example, Botswana’s honey badgers are in Appendix III.
  • There are annotations attached to each species listed in one of the three Appendices. These annotations usually specify how many plants or animals can be traded, and by which countries (known as a quota). They may also specify which parts of a plant or animal can or cannot be traded, and whether or not live animals or plants can be traded.

The main role of CITES is to keep legal trade at sustainable levels and help countries stop illegal wildlife trade. 97% of the species listed by CITES are in Appendix II, which allows regulated trade. Each country is required to issue export or import permits for any legally traded CITES-listed species and keep records of these permits. Anyone who legally buys or sells wild animals or plants listed by CITES must therefore have permits to export and/or import those species.

If the authorities catch someone with a load of CITES-listed plants or animals (or their parts), they can ask to see their permit. Illegal traders will not be able to produce a permit and are therefore liable to fines or imprisonment. Without a permitting system, clamping down on wildlife crime would be impossible.

Close up of a lion looking straight at the camera

What do the CoP18 decisions mean for Africa’s wildlife?

Before each CoP, countries must write detailed proposals to CITES for any changes they would like to make to the agreement. These changes include putting a new species onto one of the Appendices, changing the annotations (detailed conditions) attached to any listed species, or changing some aspect of how CITES works. This year, Parties of CITES submitted a record 56 proposals covering changes proposed for 550 species. Seven of those proposals concerned four African mammal species – elephant, white rhino, black rhino and giraffe.

Elephant proposals

African elephants are currently listed on Appendix I for all countries except South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, where they are on Appendix II. This allows them to sell elephant trophy hunts, but an annotation prevents the sale of raw elephant tusks unless specially approved. All elephant tusks retrieved from dead elephants or seized from poachers are stored in ivory stockpiles, the largest of which are managed by African countries.

Three elephant proposals were submitted to CITES. Two of them tried to reduce trade restrictions, while the other one tried to tighten them. Zambia wanted to follow in the footsteps of its southern neighbours by downlisting its elephants to Appendix II. Meanwhile, the four southern African countries that already have an Appendix II listing wanted to change the annotations. These currently prevent the sale of ivory except for “once-off” stockpile sales. Finally, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Sudan, Kenya and Syria proposed to put all elephants on Appendix I. In the end, none of these proposals were accepted, thus keeping elephants on the same Appendices as they were before CoP18.

Nonetheless, three other documents about elephants resulted in changes to elephant and ivory management. Live African elephants may no longer be exported to areas outside of the elephant range in Africa, except under exceptional circumstances. This means that African countries cannot sell their wild elephants to zoos in other countries.

The other two documents were about the ivory trade. Countries that still allow ivory to be sold domestically must now prove that they are not facilitating the illegal international ivory trade. Evidence includes a system of permits within the country that shows what happened to the ivory once it entered the country – who bought and sold it, and where the final product (e.g. a carving) goes. Furthermore, all countries with ivory stockpiles must report the status of these stockpiles to CITES annually.

Karl Johan Nils Friberg: Elephant mock charge

Rhino proposals

Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Namibia submitted separate proposals regarding their white rhino populations. White rhinos are currently listed in Appendix I in all countries except Eswatini and South Africa. However, rhino horn cannot be sold commercially by any country.

Eswatini proposed to open the trade in rhino horn to fund the protected areas that currently sustain rhino populations. They proposed to sell their current stockpile of rhino horn (from dehorning operations and deaths) and use this money to fund their protected areas and rangers that protect the rhinos. Thereafter, they would dehorn their rhinos to sustain their income.

Namibia requested that their white rhino population be downlisted to Appendix II. Namibia has the second largest white rhino population in Africa, after South Africa. The main rationale for this downlisting would be to trade in live rhinos and trophy hunting, without any rhino horn trade. Both Namibia and Eswatini’s proposals were rejected.

South Africa requested a change in the way the export quotas for their black rhino populations are calculated. Although black rhinos are on Appendix I, South Africa was allowed an export quota of five adult rhinos per year for trophy hunting. They proposed that the quota be changed to 0.5% of the national black rhino population, which translates to no more than 10 rhino exports per year for the current population. This proposal was approved.

Katherine Prindle: baby rhino in the wild perched on a rock

Giraffe proposal

Central Africa Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Senegal proposed to put giraffes on CITES Appendix II for the first time. The proposal recognised that the key threats to giraffes in East, Central and West Africa are habitat destruction, poaching for bushmeat, civil unrest and ecological changes (e.g. climate change). They nonetheless considered that international trade in giraffe parts (bones and leather) could be adding to these threats. An Appendix II listing would allow for closer monitoring and regulation of this trade.

The southern African countries objected to listing giraffes because populations in this region are stable or increasing. This is also the only region (including Tanzania) that allows giraffe trophy hunting, which results in international trade. Consequently, an Appendix II listing would require these countries to put more effort into trade regulation. The proposal was accepted, despite the southern African countries’ objections.

Wayne Grieveson: baby giraffe drinking

What happens now?

The southern African countries were disappointed by CITES rejecting their proposals to loosen trade restrictions for elephants and rhinos and did not agree with listing the giraffe. In their closing statement at the CoP, these countries suggested that they may withdraw from CITES altogether in the near future. Their disagreements with other African countries that proposed further trade restrictions stem from different conservation philosophies. Southern Africa believes that trading their wildlife can achieve both conservation and sustainable development goals, whilst others see wildlife trade as a threat to conservation.

Although far from decided, a southern African withdrawal from CITES would have huge implications for African conservation as a whole. As the only region with large, stable populations of elephants, rhinos and giraffes, amongst others, southern Africa is critical to conserving Africa’s iconic species. If you would like to know more about African conservation issues, feel free to get in touch with us, or find out more about how you can help through one of our conservation projects.