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Update from CITES CoP18

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

This August, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) attended the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) to CITES (an international conference that regulates the trade of endangered species). The two-week conference, hosted in Geneva, had a packed agenda for delegates to debate, ranging from the trade in wild caught elephants to the sale of ivory and rhino horn stockpiles.


During CITES, DSWF works closely with a team of expert lawyers, biologists, scientists and conservationists to support the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), a group of more that 30 African countries dedicated to the survival of the species and ending the trade in ivory. Please find a comprehensive write up of the elephant related topics at CoP18 below:

The trade in live elephants:

Intro: At CoP18, the AEC submitted a proposal to CITES aiming to end the export of live, wild caught, elephants from Africa oversees to unnatural locations. The current CITES text allows live elephants listed in Appendix II to be traded to “appropriate and acceptable destinations”. However, this wording creates loop holes to continue the trade in live elephants. The AEC sought to clarify this wording to “in situ conservation programmes within their natural range”. In short, if adopted, this wording would stop the trade of live elephants oversees.

Outcome: Following a historic vote, 46 governments voiced their unequivocal support of the AEC’s proposal to end the barbaric trade of live elephants to international locations. Despite this critical victory, it emerged that the European Union hadn’t voted due to voting technicalities. During the plenary sessions, where decisions are reviewed and adopted, the EU reopened the debate and suggested compromised wording that would allow live trade only in only in exceptional or emergency circumstances (where it provides considerable conservation benefit to elephants in the wild.) This wording was agreed and adopted by the CoP.

Our views: DSWF were delighted to see this proposal adopted as the first major step to ensure international legislation protects wild elephants from international export, and only then in exceptional circumstances.  Although the wording wasn’t as strong as the original proposal, due to conditions insisted upon by the EU, it’s adoption marks significant progress and will prevent elephants being ripped from their herds to fuel the brutal and traumatic demand from zoos, circuses and entertainment facilities around the world.

The Closure of Domestic Ivory Markets:

Intro: At CoP18, the AEC submitted a document calling on all countries to close their domestic ivory markets as a matter of urgency. Unfortunately, the current wording only calls on counties whose markets contribute to poaching to close their markets. This creates loopholes, notably in Japan and the EU, to keep their markets open. These markets enable the laundering of ivory from poaching and allows trade to migrate to open markets. It is impossible to maintain regulated national markets alongside illegal ones and elephants will continue to be killed for their ivory unless they are shut.

Outcome: During the CoP, the US proposed a compromise on the floor that would shift the burden of proof to those countries with markets still in operation. In short, the wording would require counties with legal markets to report back to CITES on the measures they are taking to ensure their markets aren’t contributing to illegal trade and poaching. This wording was adopted after a vote on the floor.

Our View: Despite not adopting language to close down all markets, the decision taken by the CoP is a huge step forward and will provide further protection for wild elephants. Countries can no longer simply deny the connection between legal markets and the poaching of elephants; they must now prove it. The closure of domestic ivory markets has been at the forefront of DSWF’s mission to protect elephants and we welcome this historic decision for further protect them.

Ivory Stockpile management:

Intro: Ivory stockpiles are prevalent across the world and theft is a common occurrence. Despite the size of these stockpiles, there is currently a lack of information on the stocks and not all parties comply with their reporting obligations. At CoP17, the Secretariat was directed to provide practical guidance on ivory stockpile management to mitigate their leakage into the illegal trade and to help reduce the burden around security and secure storage. At CoP18, the AEC submitted a document proposing a way forward to finalise and adopt the delayed guidance and proposed measures to strengthen annual reporting by parties, including stolen and missing ivory. The proposal also directed the Secretariat to publish data of the regional levels of stocks and identify parties who fail to report stocks for further action.

Outcome: During discussions, the CoP agreed to adopt amended language to the CITES text which would ensure parties maintain an inventory of government stockpiles (including those privately held where possible) and inform the Secretariat on the levels of these stockpiles.

Our View: Despite delays from the Secretariat, DSWF were pleased that the document was adopted as it will advise on how to limit the leakage of ivory stocks into the illegal trade and help manage, secure and dispose of stockpiles with compliance measures for those who flout the advice.

Appendix I:

Intro: At CoP18, the AEC submitted a proposal which would uplist the elephant populations of Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa from Appendix II to Appendix I status. Since 1980, Africa’s elephant populations have declined by 68% and therefore meet the biological criteria for an Appendix I listing.  At least 76% of these elephants are transnational and are not limited by national borders. In short, this means that elephants can be listed under two appendices in the same day as they migrate across borders. The status of elephants MUST be addressed at the continental level. The proposal submitted by the would give elephants the highest possible protection under CITES and end the ‘split listing’ of a migratory, transboundary species.

Outcome: During a vote on the floor, the AEC’s proposal was sadly rejected maintaining the split-listing of the populations from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa on Appendix II.

Our View: Due to unfair time restraints from the chair, discussions only lasted twenty minutes, markedly shorter than the two previous pro-trade proposals which were allocated 2.5 hours. The CoP’s decision means that elephants will continue to be ‘split-listed’ and not offered the equal protection they should be. DSWF were disappointed by the outcome but will continue to fight for a continental Appendix I uplisting based on sound biological and scientific evidence.

Zambia Downlisting:

Intro: During CoP18, Zambia submitted a proposal to downlist their elephant populations from Appendix II to Appendix I to allow trade in ivory and elephant by products such as skin and hair (subject to criteria). This proposal would further complicate the ‘split-listing’ issues discussed above. Furthermore, Zambia’s elephant’s population is small and has suffered a marked decline from 200,000 in 1972 to 17-26,000 in 2015. Furthermore, the proposal fails to mention large scale poaching in Sioma Ngwezi National Park, Luangwa Valley, Kafue National Park, Lower Zambezi system and South Luangwa National Park.

Outcome: Heated debates occurred on the floor from many countries and the chair progressed the discussions to a vote. The proposal was voted down concluding that Zambia’s elephant populations would remain on Appendix I.

Our view: DSWF were delighted to see this proposal rejected. It’s sends a clear message to the world that ivory is not a commodity to be traded, especially in a country where poaching is rife. It only takes a glance as the headlines to conclude that elephants face a daunting future unless we unite to protect these sentient beings. Ivory and elephant parts are not a commodity to be traded, they belong on an elephant, in the wild. We must bust the myth that trade is going to conserve wildlife. It’s been tried, tested and failed. We must halt the trade of endangered species and focus our attention on efforts to protect them in their natural habitat, not trade them for our own financial greed.

Southern African Trade Proposal:

Intro: The elephant populations of Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Botswana are currently listed on Appendix II. However, there is an annotation restricting the trade in ivory. During CoP18, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana submitted a proposal to remove this annotation which would allow trade in ivory and for the sale of ivory stockpiles.

Outcome: After a controversial debate, the chair proceeded discussions to a vote where the majority of parties voted to reject the proposal.

Our view: DSWF were delighted to see countries unite against this proposal. When elephant populations across the continent are suffering from huge poaching losses, legalising the trade in ivory is not the answer. Legal trade fuels and provides cover for illegal trade and increases consumer demand. The increase of poaching and illegal trade after the 2008 ‘one-off’ ivory stockpile sales demonstrate this point. Furthermore, opening up the trade of ivory is contrary to the huge efforts made by parties such as China, the US and Hong Kong to close their domestic ivory markets. History shows that international ivory trade cannot be controlled. In the decade before the 1989 Appendix I listing, when all African elephants were listed on Appendix II, legal trade under CITES permit led to the loss of half the continental population – an estimated 600,000 elephants.

Woolly Mammoth:

Intro: Israel submitted a proposal to the CoP requesting that Woolly Mammoths be listed on Appendix II to help regulate the trade in mammoth ivory and to understand the implications and unintended consequences of this trade on live elephants.

Outcome: An amended proposal which requests the CITES Secretariat to commission a study on trade in mammoth ivory and its contribution to illegal trade in elephant ivory was accepted by consensus.

Our view: DSWF were happy to see parties support the new study, despite strong opposition which will continue to safeguard elephants in the wild. This is the first time an ‘extinct’ species would have been listed if approved in its original form.


On the whole it was a positive CoP for rhinos. DSWF have been working closely with the Species Survival Network (SSN), a coalition of more than 80 NGO’s committed to the species protection, to ensure that rhinos receive the greatest protectionist policies possible. Please find a comprehensive write up of the rhino related topics at CoP18 below:

Eswatini Trade Proposal:

Intro: The rhino population of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), is currently listed on Appendix II.  However, there is currently an annotation to their appendix listing to only trade; in live rhinos to “appropriate and acceptable destinations” and hunting trophies. The proposal, if accepted, would remove this annotation and allow Eswatini to trade in white rhinos, their products including horn and derivatives.

Outcome: CITES parties strongly rejected Eswatini’s proposal to rescind the ban on international trade in rhino horn by a margin of 25 for the proposal to 102 against (with seven abstentions).

Our View: DSWF were pleased to see the proposal rejected. We strongly believe that trade stimulates demand and where legal markets exist, black markets and poaching flourish.  Now is not the time to ‘experiment’ with legal trade when the worlds rhino populations are facing decimation.

Namibia Downlisting Proposal:

Intro: During CoP18, Namibia submitted a proposal which sought to transfer its population of white rhinos from Appendix I to Appendix II, limiting commercial trade to live rhinos and hunting trophies.

Outcome: After debates on the floor, the chair proceeded discussions to a vote where Namibia’s proposal was rejected by a margin of 39 for the proposal to 82 against (with 11 abstentions).

Our View: Similarly to Eswatini’s proposal above, DSWF were pleased to see the CoP reject this proposal. The international trade ban on rhino horn has been upheld by the parties and rhinos will continue to be protected under CITES. However, there is still much work to do.

The Closure of Domestic Rhino Horn Markets:

Intro: At CoP18, Kenya submitted a document to insert domestic market closure language into CITES text. The document urged parties to take steps to close all existing domestic markets for the trade in raw and worked rhino horn as a matter of urgency and to inform the Secretariat of the status of their markets.

Outcome: The insertion of language submitted by Kenya was not adopted during the CoP discussions. However, parties did agree by consensus to add a decision directing parties to close rhino horn markets that contribute to poaching or illegal trade.

Our View: DSWF were disappointed that Kenya’s proposal to close all domestic markets wasn’t adopted. However, we were happy to see a new decision directing parties to close markets that contribute to poaching which is a major step forward to close rhino horn markets.


Vietnam came under heavy scrutiny in pre-CoP meetings for its continued role in international rhino horn trafficking. If Vietnam doesn’t submit a detailed report to the next intersessional meeting on enforcement actions to combat the illegal trade, CITES will consider initiating compliance proceedings.


At an intersessional meeting, the CITES secretariat reported that it had identified 66 facilities in 7 countries keeping captive tigers that were of concern. The Secretariat reported it would be writing to these countries to present the details and propose visits (where appropriate) to gain a better understanding of their activities.

By CoP18, no information had been made public on the progression of the above decisions. As a result, India submitted a proposal to CoP18 which:

  • Directed facilities of concern to develop a phase out program and to inventory and monitor the populations to prevent laundering
  • Would prohibit domestic and international commercial trade in all Asian big cats and derivatives
  • Would offer non-native species of big cats the same protection as native species
  • Directed parties to share images of seized tiger skins
  • Provided specific recommendations to Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, India, Lao, Myanmar, Nepal and Vietnam
  • Recommended the Secretariat to prepare a report on the above decisions and present them for review at the next CTES intersessional meeting.

Outcome: India’s document received overwhelming support on the floor. Several of the proposed decisions were adopted including urging parties to close their domestic markets for Asian big cats and parts, implementing stricter controls over captive breeding facilities, ensuring that legislation addressed illegal trade and that international cooperation was improved. The Secretariat confirmed it will be conducting research into facilities of concern and visits where appropriate.

Our View: DSWF were very pleased that the majority of the decisions proposed by India were adopted (with a few amendments). Tiger farms continue to fuel demand and these decisions are a major step towards preventing the illegal trade and protecting these sentient beings that have declined by 96% in the wild in less than 100 years.

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