Without a doubt, we are currently teetering on the edge of the sixth mass extinction. Hundreds of species have been confirmed extinct in the past decades, while estimates of unconfirmed extinctions place the number in the thousands. Still, the worst is yet to come. Scientists estimate 1 million species worldwide are currently at risk of being lost forever. That unimaginable reality can be attributed to human intervention, with habitat loss, direct exploitation of species, climate change, pollution and invasive species all contributing to the crisis. At the time of writing, the complete eradication of thousands of creatures is imminent, representing an irreversible loss of biodiversity for the planet.
One of the most enduring causes of the biodiversity crisis is the overexploitation of wild species, which is fueled by international demand. Without adequate enforcement or regulatory oversight, poachers, traders, buyers and other actors have long-been able to recklessly exploit wild species and sell them overseas. The illicit trade in wildlife has also been growing, with estimates of unlawful profits reaching billions of dollars. The results have proven disastrous: millions of species have been pushed to extinction, while many more, including jaguars, oceanic whitetip sharks and sea turtles, are struggling for survival.
Imperiled species are not the only ones suffering. The decline of animal species, particularly those that are iconic in a particular region or country, has imposed severe economic costs on the communities these animals come from. The revenue generated from animal tourism is immense—even an individual shark, for example, can bring in millions of dollars from tourism—while poaching produces relatively little revenue, representing an immense opportunity cost for countless groups across the world.
Wildlife trade has also proven disastrous from a public health perspective. The reason is that many infectious diseases come from animals and spread to humans, due in part to the type of interactions among wildlife, livestock and people that international demand for wildlife facilitates through trade. In fact, approximately 60 percent of known infectious diseases and up to three-quarters of new or emerging diseases, originated in animals¹. That includes, perhaps most famously, COVID-19, which caused the most severe public health crisis since the Spanish flu in 1918.
Clearly, the lack of effective regulation of international wildlife trade, as well as illegal trade, are a threat to people and animals alike, contributing to a mounting biodiversity crisis and posing an international threat to public health.
Since entering into force in 1975 in Washington, DC, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has worked to address these issues, in part, by better regulating international wildlife trade. While the first text of the convention was agreed upon by 80 countries in 1973, CITES has now grown to include 184 countries, each of which has entered a legally-binding agreement to implement CITES. Consequently, CITES is one of most important environmental treaties in the world, with states regulating trade for more than 38,000 endangered or imperiled species.
One of the most important aspects of CITES is that it has three Appendices in which a species can be listed, each of which correlates with a different level of regulatory protection. The two most significant Appendices a species can be listed on are Appendix I and II. Appendix I is the most protective. It prohibits international trade of species for commercial purposes due to the high level of threat that trade poses to their survival, while Appendix II regulates the trade of species (including lookalike species) that aren’t currently threatened with extinction, but which could become so if trade in those species is not controlled. Parties meet every three years at the Conference of Parties (CoP) to propose amendments to these Appendices and discuss amendments to its implementation and compliance measures set in resolutions and decisions. The next CoP is scheduled to meet this November in Panama City.
Defenders: Our Impact and Our Position
Fighting for species at home and abroad, Defenders of Wildlife has attended every CITES CoP since the 8th conference in 1992. As part of our advocacy, Defenders works to support CITES members in their efforts to present new proposals, as well as produce various advocacy materials to share with country representatives and participants. With delegates voting on dozens of different species proposals and introducing regulatory measures that would affect thousands of species, our goal is to ensure that they have the information needed to make the best decisions possible. Information on the species we need to protect, as well as the measures that would protect them, is critical to ensuring that CITES delegates take meaningful action to help the species of our planet. Previously, we have successfully pushed for greater protection of various species of frogs, sharks, mantas, rays, sea turtles, parrots and various plants.
One of the proposals we are focusing on and supporting this year is one that would regulate the trade of glass frogs. Found across Central and South America, glass frogs inhabit a range stretching from Southern Mexico to Northern Argentina, and through the Andes from Venezuela to Bolivia. Glass frogs—named for their crystal-like transparent bodies—are commonly found in warm, moist areas, depending on running water and river vegetation for habitat. While the amphibians inhabit a considerable range, the frogs are threatened by deforestation and habitat loss.
Another threat to these frogs is the increasing demand for them within the international pet trade, which is likely due to their distinct and desirable appearance. However, despite this growing threat—and co-sponsorship for the proposal by 14 countries, primarily from Latin America (the region glass frogs are from), but also including the United States, Gabon and others—there is concern that the EU and others who have not yet indicated support for the proposal could prevent the frogs from receiving the protection they need under CITES. In this situation, where the countries that glass frogs call home support the proposal to list them on Appendix II, Defenders believes that it is important for other countries to listen to them and support the proposal, particularly those that are the primary importers of the species.
At this year’s CoP (CoP19), Defenders will also be advocating for the passage of proposals that would provide protection for various shark species. While CoP 18 saw a victory as the shortfin mako shark was listed under Appendix II—and previous CoPs saw improved regulations for the great hammerhead shark, smooth hammerhead shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, whale shark, dusky shark, blue shark, angel shark and the oceanic whitetip shark—these, and other shark species, are still in dire need of greater protection.
Currently, 75 percent of shark species are under threat of extinction. Among other causes of mortality, countless sharks have been killed as the result of being targeted for their fins and caught as bycatch by fishing vessels, with the slow reproductive cycle of many shark species making matters worse. While it is difficult to know the exact number of animals killed from illegal and unrecorded take, estimates place the number at upwards of 73 million per year.
CITES has proven to be one of the most powerful international agreements to regulate international wildlife trade, and one of the more effective treaties thanks to its implementation and compliance mechanism. At a time when the biodiversity crisis is escalating due to human negligence, and recklessness threatens the existence of millions of species, CITES serves as an opportunity for us to limit the damage and protect just a few of the marvelous creatures that live among us.
¹Salyer SJ, Silver R, Simone K, Barton Behravesh C. Prioritizing Zoonoses for Global Health Capacity Building-Themes from One Health Zoonotic Disease Workshops in 7 Countries, 2014-2016. Emerg Infect Dis. 2017 Dec;23(13):S55–64. doi: 10.3201/eid2313.170418. PMID: 29155664; PMCID: PMC5711306.
*Andres Mejia, communications intern, also contributed to this blog.