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International trade regulations regarding conservation of endangered species

Professor Nobuo Ishii (Tokyo Woman's Christian University)

CITES sets the export quotas of CITES-listed species to the Parties at level enough for the species to sustain healthy ecosystem.  CITES is excellent in terms of ecological point of views because it is based on a belief the Parties should consider maintaining adequate number of the species when exporting, in order to avoid the species to be listed in Appendix I. It focuses on prevention of extinction while taking ecological roles of the species in ecosystem into account.

At the times of the establishment of CITES, people concerned many species would be on the verge of extinction if unsustainable wildlife trades continued.  Thus, they believed regulations and ban on international wildlife trades were inevitable approaches for species conservation. 

Although protective effect is thought to be much stronger for the CITES-listed species than non-listed ones, the actual implementation is not as simple as it looks.

According to IUCN reports, up to 80% or 90% of all the significant threat to endangered species is habitats loss.  In contrast, the influence of wildlife trade related to CITES is lesser.

Trade ban on Appendix I specimens may induce adverse effects.  This does not necessarily apply to all, but is indeed true in quite a lot of cases.

Trade ban takes away income sources to the communities which rely heavily on wildlife trades thus the CITES regulation implementation can severely deteriorate legal economical activities.

Profitable wildlife is often abundant in unwealthy, developing countries.  Prohibition of trades is a fetter to those governments to allocate national budgets for species and habitat conservation, and can lead to conservation cost reduction.  If government incentives were reduced, in response to CITES ban, local community people living with profitable wildlife would no longer afford protecting species, the assets.  Thus, establishment of cashback systems to bring profit to local people is inevitable.

The population of the species we try to protect eventually diminishes, and the local peoples soon lose their interest in conservation of the species and their habitats.  Then they would seek other ways to make livings, by development and selling forest trees.  Such trends are already observed around sharks and African elephant.

The merit of Appendix II is it allows some exceptions while regulating trade.  It produces profits which can be used for wildlife protection as well as development of local economy.  If local people understand wildlife is important assets for their economy, they become eager to protect and manage them.  In addition, it would make easier for the governments to allot budgets to such conservation projects, even more enhancing the local people’s ambitions for protecting the wildlife as own assets or improvement of their lives. 

For example, vicugna (Vicugna vicugna), a South American camelid, was once targeted for poaching because of its wool, which traded expensive as raw material of wool fabric.  The population kept declining and in 1860’s, the loss reached the peak of 5,000 individuals, and, as a result, the species was listed on Red List.  To improve the situation, local people captured it alive instead of killing it, to shave like sheep-shearing and released back to wild.

After South American governments have allowed trade and introduced system of returning profits to communities, the population of vicugna increased to 350,000, according to 2008 estimates, and the species were un-listed from the Red List.  The regulation status of vicugna trades in Ecuador changed from total ban to exemption when the proposal was adopted at 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties.   

Furthermore, Mexico proposed down-listing of the Morelet's crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) so that the future trades of the species would be possible, and the proposal was adopted. Similar proposal was submitted by Guatemala, which was deferred at the moment because of the smaller population size.

At 8th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (Kyoto, 1992), “Recognition of the Benefits of Trade in Wildlife” was adopted.  At the Conference of Parties, the professionals committed to CITES, recognized that restricted commercial wildlife trades which are kept in levels that will not lead to extinction of species, but instead beneficial for conservation of species and ecosystems, or development of the local community. 

CITES was established as a means of universal wildlife protection by limiting wildlife trade because many people thought “any kinds of international wildlife trade were bad no matter what”.  However, as indigenous cultural practices, beliefs, and economic situations of local communities are widely recognized, the treaty has geared its focus to more flexible, community-based conservation, and creates (amends) rules to control of international wildlife trades in sustainable way, allocating profits gained from the trades to regional wildlife conservation activities.  Thus, in terms of wildlife conservation, some people argue it would be more effective Appendix II (allowed limited trade) than Appendix I (generally trade was prohibited).

At 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, Zambia proposed for transfer of African elephant from Appendix I to Appendix II because they were able to control the elephant poaching within limited budgets.  Although they claimed products under the influence were live elephants and raw/processed skins, no ivories included, the proposal was rejected.  This was the typical case of misjudgment by Conference of the Parties. 

At 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, when the United States proposed to up-list polar bears from Appendix II to Appendix I to ban trade, many Parties went against it because the declining of polar bear population was blamed on global warming and not the international trade.  The proposal was rejected after all.  We are deeply concerned with such unreasonable claims the United States makes. 

When judging whether commercial international wildlife trade is good or bad, we need to be more permissive to approve ones that don’t affect population sizes.  At the same time, we also need to carefully observe any unfavorable results the wildlife trade induces to sustainability of species. We have to allow trade if it is within the allowable range, while we have to combat illegal activities.

Not all commercial trades are bad.  What kind of impacts they pose to conservation is what we should consider.

The parties who went against the Zambian proposal must have thought the decision would lead to the perfect protection of the elephant, but we are afraid they were not looking at the whole picture.  It is very unlikely trade ban would be an absolute solution to the problem.  Local community people who live around elephants would not understand why trade is banned. 

CITES needs to focus more on how operative and effective the regulations are on the field.  It is not too difficult to encounter cases where universal trade bans don’t work as means of species protection; rhinos, tigers, and African elephants, etc.

Trade ban should never be imposed when possibility of the extinction is low with scientific evidences.

We should try to create and provide optimum environments so that species can independently sustain their own population to function in ecosystems.  Unfortunately, it is doubtful we are doing them well.


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