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A round up of COP 19

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Our team recently returned from Panama City after a challenging but fascinating CITES COP 19. So many important issues were debated at this conference that inevitably, there will always be a mixture of successes and setbacks. Below we summarise some of the key decisions that came out of the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Mixed news for elephants

Sadly, attempts to ensure greater protection for elephant populations in South Africa including Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia were unsuccessful. We continue to argue that, as elephants are migratory species and because many are transboundary, having different levels of protection in different countries is inappropriate and leaves the rules unclear and too open to interpretation.

Thankfully, there was some better news for elephants as attempts to further reduce the protection for this species in Zimbabwe was overwhelmingly rejected by CITES parties.

Image credit: Riccardo Maywald

The biggest success for elephants from the meeting was a temporary suspension on the live trade of elephants, limiting it to conservation programmes within their natural and historic range. This moratorium will last for three years until CITES COP 20, in 2025, and will prevent incidents like the cruel recent export of wild elephants from Namibia to zoos in the (United Arab Emirates) UAE.

Georgina Lamb, CEO of David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF), had this to say: “We welcome the moratorium agreed at COP 19 to limit the export of live wild caught African elephants to conservation programmes within the species natural and historic range in Africa.  It is crucial, however, that the ban on this cruel practice of exporting elephants to inhospitable and inappropriate places be made permanent.”

A troubling future for hippos and rhinos

Image credit: Barry Butler

It was some of Africa’s iconic big mammals that took the biggest hit at CITES.  Attempts spearheaded by a number of West African countries to increase protection for hippos were defeated, meaning many more animals will continue to be killed. To put this into context, the parts of 14,000 hippos were globally traded as hunting trophies between 2009 and 2018, so this failure to act will result in the deaths of thousands more.

Hippo populations have declined by between 30-50% over the last decade, particularly across West Africa, and they are increasingly a target for poachers, as their teeth are used by traffickers as a more easily accessible alternative to elephant ivory.  

Protection for white rhinos in Namibia was also reduced, despite the fact that only 1,200 are left in the country and the poaching of them continues to increase, as it does in neighbouring South Africa.  

Disappointingly, both the UK government and the European Commission voted against protecting hippos and rhinos.  The Commission, in particular, showed a lack of ambition across the board at CITES, appearing to disregard the intentions of their own biodiversity strategy, and the views of the European Parliament, as well as the precautionary principle – the idea that action should be taken to avoid potential harm, even when scientific uncertainty and/or data and information gaps exist.

Better news for pangolins

Thankfully, the UK government showed far more ambition and leadership in its attempts to protect pangolins at COP 19. A resolution proposed by the UK which called for the closure of domestic markets for commercial trade in pangolin specimens and greater reporting and monitoring of stocks of parts and derivatives of pangolins was passed by a large majority.  While the enforcement of such resolutions remains challenging, this is nevertheless a significant step forward.

Other successes

A number of other species were provided with more protection at CITES CoP 19. In a big defeat for the global shark fin trade, all species of requiem sharks (including tiger, bull and blue sharks) will now receive increased protection, as well as 6 hammerhead shark species and 37 species of guitarfish. International trade in all 160 species of glass frogs will now also be increasingly restricted, as it will for 52 species of turtles and seven species of stingray.

What’s next?

DSWF will continue to engage closely in international policy debates on the wildlife trade, particularly at CITES. Our role as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) partner of the African Elephant coalition – a consortium of 32 elephant range states in East and West Africa – means we continue to have an influential voice and we will continue to advocate for increased protection for elephants, pangolins, rhinos, and all other species.

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