Live From CITES CoP17, Johannesburg. South Africa



SRI Director Marie Levine and I are in Johannesburg, South Africa at CoP17 (The 17th meeting of member nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, a.k.a. CITES). The purpose of CITES is to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of any species. Delegates from the 183 member nations discuss the species proposals and then vote if protection in one of three categories is needed, move a species to a different level of protection or remove protection for a species. Every member nation (Party) has one vote and proposals require a 2/3 majority vote to pass. An Appendix I listing prohibits all international trade in the species. Appendix II allows for export only if that country can demonstrate that such trade does not threaten the species with extinction in their country and a CITES permit to that effect is required. Appendix III refers to animals and plants which may become endangered and thus require monitoring. But even when a species achieves a listing, a country may take out a ‘reservation’ within 90 days of the meeting. A ‘reservation’ means the country refuses to abide by the CITES mandate – which Japan and China (no surprise) do with regularity.

In 2002, for the very first time in the history of CITES, two species of sharks were placed on Appendix II - whale sharks and basking sharks. In 2004 at CoP13 in Bangkok, Thailand, white sharks were accorded an Appendix II listing and sawfish were listed on Appendix I in 2007 at CoP14. In 2014 at CoP16, all manta rays and five species of sharks were listed on Appendix II: oceanic whitetip sharks, porbeagle sharks, and smooth, scalloped and great hammerhead sharks.

In addition to the proposals, an important component of the meeting is discussion of regulatory issues such as policy, permits, exemptions and reports from working groups. There are also numerous side events by Interpol, investigative journalists, scientists, and special interest groups. For example, in 2010 Japan brought 50 delegates to CoP15 in Doha, Qatar. The night before the vote on bluefin tuna, Japan hosted a sushi dinner featuring bluefin tuna for delegates only. The next evening they hosted a dinner for delegates only at which they served shark fin soup. Neither shark nor bluefin tuna proposals passed that year.

SRI has been attending CITES meetings for the past 14 years and have come to know some of delegates personally, worked alongside them in the field and for months in preparation for CITES. From time to time the Secretariat calls on our scientists to address the delegates on matters pertaining to sharks. Throughout CITES we attend daily conferences with the US State Department, and meet with the heads of the delegations, providing them with peer-reviewed scientific papers and supporting documents pertaining to sharks and other species. As long-time members of Species Survival Network, we also work closely with other conservation organizations that are members of the network. If a species represents high revenue to a country, its delegate may be ordered to vote against its protection, and some countries which receive aid from another may be ordered to vote as its benefactor requires. Not all organizations attending CITES are conservationists, many represent special interests such as the shark fin industry, the ivory trade, captive breeding facilities, hunters, importers and exporters.

More conservation organizations would attend were it not for the cost (travel, hotel, providing supporting documents to 183 delegations for each proposal). The cost is significant, but CITES is the sole international treaty whose decisions are enforced by 183 countries and fines for violations can be in the millions of dollars. IUCN, the Humane Society, Shark Research Institute, Oceana, Pew, Sharks International and Born Free attend every CoP from start to finish. Representatives from other conservation groups may come for a few days to host an event or attend the plenary on the final day of the meeting at which the proposals are ratified. The plenary can be vitally important; at CoP12 in Santiago, Chile, the whale shark and basking shark proposals were initially defeated, but were passed in the plenary.

Marie and I will be reporting from CITES on SRI’s Facebook page and blogging at:

Jennifer Schmidt, PhD Director of Science & Research The Shark Research Institute