2016 CITES Conference of the Parties tackles an urgent conservation agenda

Written by Susan Lieberman and Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy on 23 September 2016 in Opinion

Wildlife crime that transcends national borders needs a transnational response, write Susan Lieberman and Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy.

Tiger skin | Photo credit: Press Association

This month, governments will gather for the first time since March 2013 for the CITES meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP). CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments whose goal is “"to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival." 

The 17th meeting of the CITES CoP (CoP17) takes place 24 September-5 October in Johannesburg, South Africa. There are currently 183 member governments ("Parties") of CITES, such that practically every country in the world will be represented. The EU will attend for the first time as a party to the convention. 

We will gather in South Africa at a time of crisis for illegal trade in wildlife. Just two examples indicate the challenges before us. In the last decade, it is believed that more than one million pangolins have been removed from the wild, the vast majority entering international trade, much of which is illegal. 


Between 1975 and 2005, 1.3 million African grey parrots were reported to be legally exported from Africa. Organised criminal networks are involved in much of the illegal wildlife trade; as such it is a threat to not only the environment and biodiversity but security, the rule of law and sustainable development. Wildlife crime that transcends national borders needs a transnational response.  

The EU has recently come forward with a holistic and comprehensive EU action plan against wildlife trafficking, tackling many of the issues relating to wildlife crime. While the action plan is a good start, it needs to be backed by concrete commitments, both on a national and international level. CoP17 will be the first real test. 

The European Parliament voted a resolution on 15 September setting out recommendations and priorities for key items on the agenda of the forthcoming CoP17 conference. Some of these concern major decisions for a large number of species subject to international trade. 

These include: 1) transfer of all eight species of pangolins (African and Asian) to Appendix I; 2) transfer of the African grey parrot to Appendix I; 3) inclusion of several species of sharks and rays in Appendix II, which will strengthen controls on their trade; and 4) enhanced efforts to stop trafficking/illegal trade in live cheetahs, helmeted hornbills, tigers, tortoises, and many other species. Both the Wildlife Conservation Society and the European Parliament support all of these measures.

We also strongly support draft agenda item 57.2, which calls on Parties to close their domestic ivory markets in order to reduce opportunities for illegal ivory to be 'launder' into the legal trade. 

This resolution builds on the motion adopted overwhelmingly by the IUCN World Conservation Congress on 10 September. Along with enhanced protection on-the-ground and enforcement at all levels, ivory markets across the globe must be closed, permanently, if the African elephant is to recover from the devastation of the recent surge in ivory trafficking. 

We know several concrete measures governments can take globally to address the current wildlife trade crisis - we know what is needed. We need more support for conservation in the wild. We need law enforcement better equipped and respected, and intelligence-based law enforcement that will bring down the criminal kingpins and their networks. 

We need to provide them with modern technology to intercept illegally traded wildlife before it reaches the market. And we need to provide the necessary protection to species that are threatened with extinction by this trade. All of these measures will receive a much-needed boost with strong action in Johannesburg. 

It's incumbent on us now to meet the challenge. The whole world will be watching.

About the author

Susan Lieberman is Vice President for International Policy at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) 

Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (ALDE, NL) is Chair of Parliament's delegation to CoP17


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