For those who follow the workings and importance of our global ecosystem – the gatekeeping mechanism for our economy, you will know that last week marked the end of another opportunity at a Conference of the Parties (COP17) to greatly improve the future of our planet’s well being – but we missed the chance, yet again.

This is not about climate change. Instead, it is about the trade and exploitation of nature and the way it is governed. In 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was established to regulate and better manage the trade in wildlife. Note the word “trade” in the name and the absence of the word “protection.” The convention is now legally binding on a global basis, with over 180 implementing nations as signatories, attempting to restrict and regulate over 35,000 species to “sustainable levels.” Its latest Conference of the Parties meeting (COP) between government, scientific and NGO stakeholders, was held for the past two weeks in Johannesburg, South Africa. Little emphasis, however, was placed on how to fill the ever-widening capacity gaps it faces in playing the imperative conservation role that is needed by this convention if it is what we are planning to live with, and if we truly want to bring a halt to rapid species decline.   

The Baiji dolphin, or Yangtze River dolphin, was classified as "practically extinct" in the last decade. (Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons)

The Baiji dolphin, or Yangtze River dolphin, was classified as “practically extinct” in the last decade. (Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons)

At its first inception, though set up largely from the influence of those in the trade who wanted to keep their “commerce of nature” at sustainable levels for longer-term benefit, CITES did yield improvements in reduced exploitation of wildlife. As a result, it succeeded in becoming “the” convention to regulate the trade in all wildlife. NGOs and the scientific community fortunately became engaged and influential in the process of decision making for which species would face trade restrictions based on the vulnerability level of their survival. However, early CITES success in protection came in the days before the existence of technologies such as night-vision glasses, specialized weapons, GPS tracking and tagging, allowing the instantaneous flow of information facilitating easy access to poaching targets – in addition  to the ever-growing demand from a consuming population that usually has little concern for, or knowledge of, the wildlife they are removing en-masse from the environment that has kept our world functioning.

Today, the overexploitation of wildlife resources is a key threat to biodiversity conservation, yet even with the CITES protections in place the value of illegal trade in many CITES-listed species is estimated to be worth well over $20bn annually, much of which is controlled by those who are involved with drug, weapon and human trafficking.

Smuggled totoaba. (Photo via PROFEPA)

Smuggled totoaba. (Photo via PROFEPA)

Though well-intentioned, CITES has met its match, and does not have the capacity to keep up with the vast number of species that need its support. In fact, if a species actually does finally get its support, it is usually too late. Governments who have cared not to take a stance on preserving nature, and their impacts on other countries because of the wildlife/fauna it trades, such as Hong Kong, have simply used CITES as the “default” laws for regulating trade, as it is the lowest hanging fruit that causes the least pain and effort to adhere to, while still appearing to be a mature member of the international community. Most of the global public knows nothing of CITES, nor of the way that wildlife’s future is dictated by an outdated, relatively confined group of influencers, where political processes and sway often win the day.

The scientific and NGO communities still both support the role of CITES for wildlife protection, and rightly so, as it is the only legally binding convention we have. That does not mean it is the best, or that it is not outdated in its effectiveness. If we truly care about wide-spread protection, it is critical that everyone who is entrenched in the conservation portion of this process takes a step back (as opposed to those jockeying for extended trade and exploitation opportunities), with a much broader, strategic and macro view to put some serious effort into creating CITES Version 2.0.

Yes, at the recent Conference of the Parties (COP17) meeting in Johannesburg, there were some good “wins” for the animals, such as the Pangolin, African Grey Parrot, 9 species of rays, three thresher sharks, the silky shark, and even the trade of endangered rosewood, where the trade has increased 65-fold since 2005. There are thousands more that need protection, but did not make the list because they did not have the proper “lobbying” support to get them on the ballot. Meanwhile, increased restrictions on some of the biggest symbols of wildlife, Elephants and African Lions, failed to pass the horse-trading style of voting that goes on between nations as if the species in play is being bid on like a host-city for the World Cup or the Olympics. CITES is the only convention in the world that still allows for private voting, keeping transparency at a minimum when it suits the trading nations who are vested in the business of the exploitation of that species, or when voting deals have been done behind the scenes.

Pangolin. (Photo Credit: Wildlife Alliance / Flickr)

Pangolin. (Photo Credit: Wildlife Alliance / Flickr)

Our planet, and all of its inhabitants, deserve better than this. We do not have the luxury of time to be stuck with an outdated CITES system that lacks transparency, is swayed by political and economic interests, and which does not have the scope and scientific resources needed to protect our natural capital. Instead, a CITES Version 2.o would make transparent decisions based on scientific data, not economic politicking, by using the vast network of information, for example, that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has at its disposal.   

Habitat ravaged by pollution and changes in climate are simultaneously putting pressure on ecosystems as we continue to rely on an inferior set of conservation mechanisms which all countries abide by. Our economy is a 100% subsidiary of the environment, yet we have been pulling the threads from nature’s fabric that has functioned so well to support us, in our continued quest for economic growth, wealth and the need for land.  This lack of capacity for large scale species protection should be a call to action for anyone out there who can see the urgency of this predicament, because without significant change, the perceived veil of protection we have relied upon under CITES may create the ultimate unintentional kill.

Doug Woodring

Co-Founder, Ocean Recovery Alliance

Mr. Woodring has an MBA from The Wharton School, an MA in Internationals Relations from Johns Hopkins (SAIS), and is a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Climate Hero.

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