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CITES: Failure or veiled success?

A personal perspective on the world’s biggest wildlife trade meeting

By Crawford Allan, Regional Director, TRAFFIC North America

It was the second week of March and nearly 2,000 wildlife trade experts and delegates from over 150 countries were in Doha, Qatar to participate in the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES, the United Nations wildlife trade treaty.

Fishy business

This was dubbed the marine meeting because more highly valuable commercial fisheries species were being proposed for trade bans or strict protection than ever before. 

Among the most hotly contested proposals was a call for a total trade ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna. All renowned fisheries scientists agree that the species has been fished almost beyond hope and we have to stop fishing to give populations a chance to recover. Bluefin tuna is used for the highest grade sushi and sashimi, fetching up to $175,000 per fish in the Tokyo fish market. 

Unfortunately, it became all too clear that science and sustainability were on the losing side when governments decided against protecting Altantic bluefin tuna under CITES.  After that, we saw the fall of the proposals for the four shark species – hammerhead, porbeagle, oceanic whitetip and spiny dogfish.  The first three are significantly overfished and the lack of management has reduced some populations by up to 90 percent, primarily for trade in their fins, which is served as a delicacy in Asia.

In the end, all of the marine proposals by the US and European nations failed because commercial interests out-gunned them. It became clear that major fisheries interests from Japan and China had been lobbying governments not to support the tuna and shark listings months ahead of the meeting. One of their tactics included serving bluefin tuna at an embassy dinner hosted during the meeting.  

It wasn’t all grim.

CITES achieved successes for many of the 42 species proposals and 60 plus agenda items, including protection for several rare reptile and amphibian species trade for pets, largely via the internet.  Governments agreed to some strong new agreements to protect tigers and rhinos from the ravages of poaching to supply medicine and fashion markets in Asia.  The proposals by Tanzania and Zambia to trade in elephant ivory in one off sales were also defeated.

The next time CITES governments meet will be in 2013 at Thailand. Until then, WWF and TRAFFIC will continue to play a key role in securing new enforcement initiatives to protect species threatened by wildlife trade.

Although we did not get all the results we wanted from this meeting, we are not disheartened or defeated. Conservation takes commitment and we’re in it to secure the biggest prize of all—a vibrant living planet.


Learn more about TRAFFIC and wildlife trade.