As with many events worldwide in 2020, the conferences that create stronger international wildlife policies have been canceled too. Standing and scientific meetings and conferences, including the in person meetings for the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and the Convention on the International Trade of Threatened and Endangered Species in Flora and Fauna (CITES), were canceled for the year due to the threat of spreading COVID-19.
These cancelations mean that imperiled wildlife will have to wait another year for new recommendations, measures, and decisions when a million species are already under threat of extinction and have yet to receive protection. “The long-lasting effects of COVID-19 on wildlife species around the globe are very concerning,” said Alejandra Goyenechea, senior international counsel with Defenders of Wildlife. “Scientific papers and recommendation proposals that support greater wildlife protections have been laid aside until these meetings can happen again, and we have no idea when that will be.”
This year was expected to have been a step forward in protecting imperiled wildlife and biodiversity around the globe. Meetings of the CITES Animals, Plants and Standing Committees had planned to review documents for significant trade of imperiled species, their status in the Appendices where they are listed, or progress of decisions for specific species such as jaguars and amphibians. Instead, progress reviews were delayed, and committee members were encouraged to review 2019 decisions to prepare for the next meeting.
“With the decision to postpone all deliberation, we are increasing the threat of trade involving CITES-listed species,” said Goyenechea. “While COVID-19 has given us a clearer understanding of the impact humans are having on the planet, and on the health of species around the globe, missing even one year of science could be disastrous for species in the long-run.”
While some meetings were able to proceed online in part during the coronavirus pandemic, this did not guarantee forward progress in wildlife conservation, Goyenechea says. This month, ICCAT convened by correspondence to negotiate submitted proposals, including three on short-fin mako sharks. But according to Goyenechea, who attended as an observer, no progress was made. “It’s frustrating from a wildlife standpoint,” she said. “These species desperately need protections but long-standing economic incentives such as commercial fisheries dominate the discussion rather than scientific reasoning.”
Defenders of Wildlife attends several convention meetings each year as an observer, pushing for the conservation of species from across the Americas, including those brought into the United States from other countries. Earlier this year, Goyenechea co-authored a new study that revealed that 1,500 species across Latin America are at risk of extinction. “I think about all the species like sharks and jaguars, which are in desperate need of monitoring and regulation follow up, and could have gotten more detailed protections and attention this year,” said Goyenechea. “Even if next year brings great progress in international conservation, it cannot make up for the interruption we have seen in 2020.”
The year 2019, by comparison, saw multiple wins for wildlife at a global scale. Imperiled marine species like wedgefishes, mako sharks, and guitarfishes gained stronger international protections under CITES, and throughout Latin American countries committed to furthering jaguar conservation and fighting illegal wildlife trade. Through the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the Lima Declaration, imperiled migratory species like endangered sharks and rays were given added protection.
But that progress, which in some cases has yet to be implemented, is minor compared to what 2020 could have brought to wildlife, said Goyenechea.
“It’s discouraging to think about how much we might have lost this year,” she said. “But there’s always hope, and I’m hopeful that once we’re able to meet again, we will have an even stronger commitment to saving wildlife than before.”