As CITES turns 50, a report on the ‘extinction business’ shows urgent need for change
Tracy Keeling -- The Canary

It’s World Wildlife Day on 3 March. This year, the event coincides with the 50th anniversary of the global wildlife trading body. World Wildlife Day is an annual celebration of the wild animals and plants that people share the planet with and depend on. With this year’s celebration also marking the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’s (CITES) anniversary, it should also be a time of particular reflection – and change.

A recent report about trade in our near kin, non-human primates, illustrates well why this is the case.

The Extinction Business

The EMS Foundation is a South African nonprofit. It focuses on addressing the needs of vulnerable groups, including wild animals. In conjunction with another organisation, Ban Animal Trading, EMS released the latest instalment of a series titled “The Extinction Business” on 22 February.

The series takes a deep dive into the international wildlife trade, particularly in relation to South Africa. The latest part is titled “Our Kin Discarded” and is focused on South Africa’s trade in non-human primates.

The organisations looked into the trade that took place via a single port of exit between 2016 and 2022. Utilising CITES trade data, along with responses to freedom of information requests from central and provincial authorities, the report points to a significant trade in South Africa’s non-human primates.

During the seven year period, the country traded 10,226 non-human primates. Most of these were exports, with some imports and re-exports, meaning they were exported but had previously been imported. The trades included 3,857 live individuals. The rest were specimens, such as skulls, skins, and hunting trophies. These specimens represented – meaning amounted to – single individuals, the report said.

The trades involved several species, including samango monkeys, vervet monkeys, chacma baboons, southern lesser bushbabies, thick-tailed bushbabies, and Mozambique dwarf bushbabies.

Wildlife trade system teeming with issues

The global wildlife trade is extensive. A 2019 paper indicated that around one-quarter of land-based vertebrates are subject to it. The fishing industry, meanwhile, trades trillions of wild lives every year. In this context, the figures for South Africa’s trade in non-human primates are not out of the ordinary. However, as the report’s authors pointed out:

Nonhuman primates are without question cognitively, behaviorally, emotionally, and socially some of the most complex animal species on earth. Their capture and removal from their natural habitats and social family structures is extremely cruel and inflicts suffering, distress which results in injuries and death.

Other elements of the report certainly give cause for pause too. In looking into the trade, EMS and Ban Animal Trading found multiple issues with how the system currently operates. These included opaque information, data discrepancies, and “largely absent verification measures”.

For instance, the report found species’ listed under “non-standard common names” in trade records, rather than their “proper Latin species name”. This means that “it is difficult to collate or review data at a species level”, the report said. Moreover, many of the individuals traded, and their destinations, were ‘untraceable’, according to the report.

CITES data is “poor quality”

CITES oversees the international trade in around 5,950 species of animals through a permitting system. It lists species in three appendices, effectively according to their risk of extinction. The trade requirements for each category differ respectively. Countries have management and scientific authorities to handle permitting and are supposed to submit records annually to CITES’ central authority, namely its secretariat.

The “Our Kin Discarded” report described CITES trade data produced through this system as “poor quality”. A 2021 complaint to CITES over the trade in elephants between Laos and China illustrated this issue well. The complaint highlighted that the data those countries submitted to the CITES secretariat contained discrepancies. Namely, the relevant elephant import and export numbers did not match. Moreover, the complaint alleged that neither country appeared to report some of the elephant trades.

Although discrepancies in CITES’ records are not hard to come by, they generally fly under the radar. The non-human primate report pointed to why this is the case. It argued that the system lacks trade analytics to catch irregularities and what it called “trade risk flags”.

The report also demonstrated that risk flags are badly needed. It highlighted that South Africa exported 1,389 live non-human primates to Bangladesh during the period. The purpose of the trade for all these individuals was commercial, i.e., to make money. But the report highlighted that Bangladesh “prohibits the commercial trade in (nonhuman) primates”. In other words, as the report explained, the non-human primates:

were exported “lawfully” from South Africa but never imported legally

No accountability for importing countries

Previous reports in “The Extinction Business” series have focused on other groups of species. The first report probed South Africa’s trade in reptiles. That report also pointed to insufficiencies in the CITES system. It argued that:

The legal trade in live wildlife is defined by loopholes and precludes accountability and transparency.

The reptile trade is an area that Canadian nonprofit Monitor Conservation Research Society also knows something about. Established in 2017, the organisation is dedicated to raising alarm bells about the impact of trade on lesser-known species. It is made up of a team with backgrounds in ecology, conservation, criminology, and political science. Monitor produces research to fill the vast information gaps on species that rarely get attention. Many of these species are subject to high levels of trade. Therefore, according to the nonprofit these species are at risk of being traded into extinction.

Echoing EMS’ concerns, Monitor’s executive director Chris Shepherd told the Canary that the global wildlife trade lacks accountability. This is particularly true in relation to importing countries, he said. Shepherd also noted there were no mechanisms in place to ensure that they are “held responsible for making sure imports are legal”.

The complaint over the elephant trades between Laos and China provided an illustration of this issue too. One of the concerns it raised was that Laos misused CITES classifications regarding the ‘source’ of the elephants. The country claimed that they were bred in captivity, rather than in the wild, which the complaint disputed. The captive-bred classification limited the protections from trade for the elephants in question. With Laos unable to prove the legitimacy of its classification, CITES suspended Laos’ trade in elephants on these grounds. But the importing country – China – faced no action.

CITES should be “turned on its head”

Shepherd highlighted another fundamental issue too. CITES listings are supposed to regulate the trade in species so that it doesn’t threaten their survival in the wild. Naturally, in order not to threaten their status in the wild, there needs to be a clear baseline for what that status is.

Shepherd explained that there is a “booming” trade in reptiles for the pet, meat, medicine, and luxury goods industries. Some but not all of the species involved have CITES listings. Shepherd said that for most reptiles in the trade, no adequate baseline understanding of their wild status exists. For some species, almost nothing is known about them.

In other words, the requisite understanding that CITES needs to make informed decisions is often lacking.

Shepherd argued that:

CITES should be turned on its head and everything should be listed until you can prove trade can be done sustainably.

This echoes comments that biologist and co-founder of the German nonprofit Pro Wildlife Sandra Altherr made to the Canary in January. She called for “a reversal of the burden of proof” in the wildlife trade. Moreover, the organisations Nature Needs More and For the Love of Wildlife proposed debate on reforms like this at a CITES conference in 2019.

CITES needs to be effective

However, despite clear and consistent evidence of systemic issues with the international trade in wildlife, parties to the CITES convention – meaning countries – aren’t exactly rushing headlong towards the necessary change.

Amid a global biodiversity crisis that has direct exploitation as its second largest cause, it’s imperative that countries spring into action. As CITES’ secretary-general, Ivonne Higuero, said in comments to mark the body’s anniversary and World Wildlife Day:

In CITES’ 50th year, there has never been more of a need for effective wildlife conservation. We are seeing unprecedented drops in wild populations of both animals and plants.

CITES plays a key role in whether wildlife conservation is effective. The body holds the power to help turn the tide on the extinction crisis, but only if it puts that power towards potent and meaningful use.

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