18th CITES conference: Africa governments spar over elephants’ future

The fate of African wildlife hangs in balance as the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) begins tomorrow (Saturday) in Geneva. 

Government representatives of most of the 183 member parties attending the 18th CoP will take key decisions that might affect elephants, giraffes and other big five in Africa.

As at previous CoPs, elephants and ivory trade will be prominent on the agenda, with three separate proposals presenting contrasting visions for the conservation of African elephants. They will be negotiating proposals on the longest agenda in CITES history, with the meeting scheduled to run until Wednesday, August 28. This CoP18 has 107 agenda items and 57 species proposals. By contrast Johannesburg, CoP17 had 90 agenda items and Bangkok CoP16 had 79 agenda items.

But the CoP 18 will also pit Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe and South Africa for pro-trade of elephants countries against Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, and Togo, backed by many more African countries, who are calling for total protection for elephants from any commercial international trade in ivory, by listing all African elephants on Appendix I of CITES, which would afford the highest protection.

Pro-trade proposals call for the downlisting of the elephant population to allow ivory stockpile sales and exports of hunting trophies, hides and leathers.

Matt Collis, IFAW Director, International Policy, and head of IFAW’s delegation at CITES, said: “Illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade, coupled with habitat loss and other human-made threats, has decimated many species so that they are now at a tipping point for future survival. Around 20,000 elephants per year are currently slaughtered for the illegal ivory trade. It is vital as the next CoP takes place that countries come together to do all they can to protect some of our most vulnerable species.”

Collis added: “Elephants need the highest protection from trade, to prevent legal sales providing a smokescreen for further poaching and illegal trade. However, it is also important that at CITES parties work to deal with problems in individual domestic markets, rather than only addressing potential up-listings and down-listings. It is vital that we provide the necessary resources to key countries to protect elephant populations on the ground, and improve enforcement capability.”

For the first time, CITES delegates will also consider the protection of giraffes. Known as the ‘silent extinction’ giraffe numbers have plummeted by up to 40% over the last 30 years due to threats including international trade in their parts, as well as habitat loss, civil unrest and illegal hunting.

“It is important that giraffes are listed by CITES because currently, we can’t say for certain how much of their huge population decline is due to trade. We do know it is a significant factor though as the only country that currently collects data on trade in giraffes, the US, has reported almost 40,000 giraffe items traded in a decade, from 2006 to 2015. Listing on Appendix II is vital to regulate trade in giraffes and prevent any illegal and unsustainable trade,” said Collis.

Another focus for this CoP is sharks and rays, declining rapidly due to demand for their fins or meat, and in some cases both. Following the successful Appendix II listing of a substantial number of shark species at the last two CoPs, a record number of countries are now proposing the listing of a further 18 of the most threatened of these species to ensure trade is manageable and sustainable. This includes both the longfin and shortfin mako shark, which are both endangered.

Collis added: “Previous successful listing of shark and ray species means there is building momentum for CITES to provide protections and inspire fisheries management where currently trade is unregulated.”

Other key species affected by trade whose protection will be negotiated at the conference include rhinos, Asian otters and jaguars. It will also address how to deal with emerging issues such as the online trade in wildlife and what to do with the ever-increasing number of live animals rescued from traffickers.

IFAW works in more than 40 countries, to rescue and protect animals and their habitats, for a world where animals and people can thrive together. A team of IFAW experts will be attending CITES CoP18 and are available for interview throughout.

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