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No, I did not misspell cities…It’s CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  So, what is the cities/transport guy doing talking about wildlife?  Well…I like plants and animals and care about their protection, and will be touching on similar topics from time to time.  This is our second crunchie of the year, and I’m going to try and break down what CITES is, and why you should care.

Can you identify all 14 species in the CITES Logo? Click on the image to get the answers

What is it, and what does it do?:  In 1963, member nations of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) drafted a new resolution that ultimately led to the creation of of CITES ten years later.  The goal of the convention was to ensure that the trade in plants and animals did not threaten the survival of these species in the wild.  Flora and Fauna (that’s fancy talk for plants and animals) species around the world have been disappearing or declining in numbers due to a number of factors, but one large one being the trade in that species or products made from that species.  In order keep this from happening, CITES designates different levels of  protection to different species (currently more than 34,000!)  Now, CITES works as a “framework” or “guideline”, providing member countries (called Parties) with a means to adopt the convention into its national laws.  CITES does not function as an international law in and of itself, and because of this, enforcement of the convention is dependent upon the individual country governments, which in most cases is lacking, or the penalties are not sever enough to deter behavior.  Of all of the member countries in the United Nations, only 17 have not ratified the convention (that leaves 193 that have!)

Why is it important?:  CITES is important because it helps protect plants and animals that are being exploited and who run the risk of becoming severely endangered or even extinct.  Without some kind of international agreement between countries, the responsibility of stoping the activities that are threatening the a plants or animals falls completely on the county in which the activities (hunting, poaching, logging, etc.) are occurring, without putting any pressure on the countries where the demand for these products is, and thus fueling the killing or logging.  Under CITES, animals such as all African rhinoceros species, tigers, and shortnose sturgeon, and plants such as bigleaf mahogany and the Guatemalan fir tree, are protected outside of their country of origin by restricting and enforcing their entry into foreign markets.  This lets countries work as a team to not only tackle the activities on the ground, but also to work to change behavior to decrease demand.  (For a list of the plants and animals listed under CITES, please click here.)

Back Rhinoceros

What does the USFWS do to enforce CITES?:  In the US, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is responsible for enforcing CITES and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The ESA is the US’s very own law that manages and protects endangered species within its boarders while CITES extends past its boards.  The USFWS works closely with agencies from other countries responsible for protecting wildlife and enforcing CITES.  These relationships have helped strengthen the capacity of these agencies, ultimately helping to protect more animals.

Lion meat anyone?:  An example of what can happen when an animal whose numbers are plummeting in the wild due to a lack of protection is the African lion.  The populations have been diminishing for the last 20 years, with some estimates showing a decline from 100,000 to 47,000 since the 1990s, (that’s a decline of more than 50%!)  While there has been a huge public backlash to the sale of lion meat in the US, there were a few restaurants that just until recently were selling lion meat steaks and burgers.  Technically, lion meat is not baned and is legal to sell as per the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  If the species were listed as endangered and protected under CITES, the sale of lion meat around the world, and especially in the US, would end almost over night.  This has become the goal for many conservation groups around the world who believe that lions need to be protected worldwide.

In a nutshell:  CITES is cool, but far from perfect.  Because it is merely an agreement and the framework for restricting the trade in plant and animals, the real job of enforcement still falls on individual countries, and most countries lack the capacity to do this.  Some countries, such as the US, have developed their own strategies and laws that help reinforce the international convention.  While there is controversy out there that CITES has in fact hurt some plant and animal species, that was certainly not its goal.  The convention has helped bring countries together to help fight the loss of species on this planet, and that’s pretty awesome in my book.

Other Sources of Information:

The CITES Website

The USFWS’s website on CITES 

World Wildlife Fund’s Take on CITES 

The African Lion’s conservation status on IUCN 

Lion meat no longer on the menu 

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