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CITES – No whales this year, but other marine mammals under pressure

On Sunday March 3rd, thousands of people, including delegates representing 178 countries, convened in Bangkok, for the 16th meeting of the Conference of Parties (or ‘COP’) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). WDC has a small team at the meeting and on the agenda are issues that will affect the lives and conservation of many animals; amongst these are a little-known large marine mammal from the west coast of Africa, the polar bear and a number of sharks and rays. We have invited Mark Peter Simmonds to introduce the issues for us. The COP is the decision-making part of CITES. It meets every three years and decides most famously on matters like how rhino horn, tiger skins and elephant ivory are dealt with in international trade. CITES is also the body that is maintaining a ban on the international trade in whale products and thereby supporting the ongoing global moratorium on commercial whaling agreed by the International Whaling Commission in 1982.

The trade controls that CITES provides are initiated by a process that puts species on one of its three lists (or ‘appendices’) of species. An animal (or a plant) on Appendix I of the convention receives the highest level of protection; international trade in these animals and their parts or products is effectively banned. CITES makes its decisions about what to protect and what not to protect by an elaborate voting process at the COP.

Step one is when a country (or countries) notifies the CITES Secretariat that they will bring a proposal to the COP. The African manatee is one important example of proposal for this COP. This little-known marine mammal is found in West Africa along the coasts and in the waterways of no less than 21 different nations. Three of these countries have proposed that it should be ‘uplisted’ from appendix II to appendix I and they are supported in this by the other neighbouring ‘range states’ where the manatee is found.

In some ways the CITES COP is like a huge species auction that stretches over two weeks. Its halls are filled not just with delegates representing member nations but also people representing many different interests and philosophies. People working for welfare and conservation organisations will be rubbing shoulders with those representing traders and hunters. Passions run high on many proposals and drama is likely on any discussions that feature the ‘big species’. Proposals for the appendices are first presented in a vast working group called Committee One during the first week of the COP. They are then debated – some nations may speak against proposals and a range of non-governmental organisations may also be able to speak to support or oppose. Points for clarification may be raised. Then a preliminary vote is taken and a preliminary working group decision is concluded. These votes are later presented in a plenary session in the last few days of the COP where they are either endorsed or – if issues are raised – they can be briefly debated and voted on again. By this time an urgent clock is usually ticking and delegates will have planes to catch home; but that is the process. Nothing is firmly decided until the concluding sessions and it is far from unusual for decisions made in the working groups to be reversed.

At recent COPs, and undoubtedly this will also be the case at this one, the position of the EU member nations have been key. Their block of up to 28 votes can be enough to push proposals over the line for success or for failure. The EU nations are also all expected to all take the same position and this means that much coordination goes on between them in the run-up to and during the COP itself.

The African manatee proposal is a strong one. Not only is it valiantly supported by all the appropriate range states but the two other extant species of manatee (and the closely related dugong) are already listed on CITES Appendix I. Furthermore, the EU has a law that means that the African manatee is already treated within Europe as if it is already on that Appendix. However, the proposal has received some criticism because the data supporting it are seen as poor. Some believe that CITES can only act where solid data show a significant population decline and international trade is the main threat. Indeed the CITES Secretariat suggest that the proposal should not be supported.

However, the African manatee is an elusive animal; and its remaining range is now spread thinly across the territories of many developing nations. It spends much of its time submerged and grazing quietly in turbid and often remote waters, and the lack of data about it partly reflects this, and partly the fact that there is little money for research in this region. Despite this, a population estimate has been made for it. This has had to be based to some extent on what is known about its sister species (the far more accessible and better researched West Indian manatee). The estimate is of only 10,000 individuals spread across this large region and also suggests that there is an ongoing decline of 10% per generation. All in all, the African manatee is probably going to struggle to survive the 21st century unless its gets more attention soon and this is where CITES can help – apart from offering the protection from trade – the attention at the COP and the achievement of an appendix I listing can help focus attention on what many believe has become a forgotten species.

Where data are poor but there remain concerns, CITES is able to act in a precautionary manner to list species on its appendices. And at the end of week one of the COP, we shall see if Committee One agreed – and finally at the very end of the COP on March 15th, we shall see if the proposal actually passes.

The manatee is far from being the most controversial proposal at this COP. The prize for that may go to the proposal to move the polar bear to appendix I. There is plenty of data for this animal and also, of course, it is a very well known species indeed. The proposal comes from the USA, supported by Russia, both countries with populations of polar bears but it is being sternly being opposed by Canada (where two thirds of the world’s remaining polar bears are to be found) and others.

That the polar bear is in crisis as its habitat melts away seems incontrovertible but what is in debate is the best way to try to save it. There are currently estimated to be 20-25,000 polar bears in 19 populations in Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway and Greenland. More than half of Canadian polar bear populations are already known to be in decline and yet Canada is the only country that allows the parts of hunted polar bears to be commercially traded internationally; about 600 are killed there every year. Polar bear hides can reach as much as US$100,000 in some parts of the world For a fuller discussion of the issues relating to the polar bear see here:

Marine species proposals tend to be controversial at CITES and some countries seem to oppose them on a point of principle claiming that marine species should be dealt with by fisheries bodies and not CITES. Such considerations may affect the votes on both the manatee and the polar bear and will certainly affect the fish species lined up for consideration at this COP which include the oceanic whitetip, scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead and smooth hammerhead, and porbeagle sharks as well as the freshwater sawfish, manta rays and three freshwater stingray species. International trade is seen as a key driver in their declines as sharks are being taken at an unsustainable rate primarily for their fins for shark fin soups.

The CITES COP is a remarkable event. It is a place of great drama and many tensions. Like many other big international meetings its function is to help humanity in its efforts to manage the living planet. Efforts that we all need to be effective if we are going to continue to share this planet with wonder animals like elephants, tigers, sharks, polar bears, whales and of course the gentle African manatee”