Saving Endangered Elephants: CITES

Saving endangered elephants, along with other endangered species on a world wide basis has been the job of the member states of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES for short.

CITES work protecting endangered elephants represents a nice case study for understanding global governance and endangered species. It starts by tracing the origin of CITES and ends with a review of its current on the ground elephant efforts.

CITES story starts with a 1963 resolution at a conference of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), a conservation group of scientists, non-governmental and governmental organizations in operation since 1948. Ten years of draft proposals and negotiations among concerned parties culminated in the signing of CITES at a Conference in Washington D.C. in 1973. The treaty entered into force in 1975 when ten state governments ratified it.

Today CITES, regulates most wildlife trade, including animals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and plants. Currently regulation of fisheries trade is subject to debate.

How CITES Works

CITES can best be described as a three legged institution perched atop a set of appendices. All three of CITES primary institutions, the Secretariat, The Conference of Parties, and the Management and Scientific Authorities theoretically work in harmony to monitor transnational trade of designated wildlife in order to insure that said trade continues on a sustainable basis.

The CITES Secretariat, the forum’s administrative arm, has responsibility for information gathering and dissemination, as well as organizing the bi-annual meetings of the parties.

The Conference of Parties, or COP for short, is the formal forum for member states to review the effectiveness of the treaty and vote on any proposed changes to species listings.

CITES teeth, or the legal implementation of the terms of the treaty, are the province of each member state. States are given a basic set of guidelines to establish a Management and Scientific Authority for regulating, monitoring, and enforcing both the importation and exportation of listed species.

CITES Appendices

CITES appendices determine the trade status of species, and they divide into three categories which designate the terms of trade for the listed species. From time to time, member states change listing criteria.

Appendix I – Species here are recognized as the most endangered, potentially on the verge of extinction. Trade in these species is limited to a very few cases (see Article 3 of the treaty) in which the primary trade consideration is not commercial interests. For example, elephants in this category could be traded if the purpose of their trade was scientific research (i.e., elephants going to certain zoos for care and reproductive research.)

Appendix II – Species here are recognized as ‘potentially’ endangered and are subject to monitored or managed trade. In this category, commercial interests may be a primary factor for trade (see Article 4 of the treaty). In many instances, trade is commonly restricted to species coming from specific geographical regions and/or a quota on their trade is put into place. So, for example, the placing of elephants on this list means that the ivory trade can continue providing that the trade meets certain requirements.

Appendix III – Article II (3) defines this category as “all species which any Party identifies as being subject to regulation within its jurisdiction for the purpose of preventing or restricting exploitation, and as needing the co-operation of other Parties in the control of trade”. Generally only a trade permit and compliance with the domestic laws of the trading states is required (see Article 5 of the treaty).

Endangered Elephants, The Ivory Trade and CITES

Protecting the world’s Asian and African elephant populations remains a topic of formal discussion, much the same as it’s been since 1975. when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) came into force.

Concerns about the stability of elephant populations began in 1970s, with a sharp rise in elephant poaching for the purpose of supplying the ivory trade, became widespread across the African continent. At the COP 5 meeting (May 1985) member states began a full investigation, with studies showing that between 1979 and 1987 Africa lost half of its elephant population.

Renewed CITES elephant interest can be traced back to a COP 7 (October 1989) decision to uplist the African elephant to Appendix I (no commercial trade). During the same meeting, CITES member states also agreed to move the elephant to Appendix I, and enact a world wide ban on the trade in ivory, effective January 1990.

Because of the ban, African elephant populations partially recovered, although accurate population statistics remained murky. As a result of increasing elephant populations, some southern Africa states, principally Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia claimed that their elephant populations were sufficient to warrant a downlisting Appendix I to Appendix II status. Their request was voted down at the COP 9 meeting, (November 1994), but following rigorous debate and a few rounds of voting, the petitioning states were conditionally granted their downlisting request at COP 10.

Two types of conditions attached to the downlisting merit attention. First Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia were granted a one shot opportunity to sell off their already accumulated ivory stocks, to the Japanese market, and the now Appendix II listing for African elephants in these states stipulates a zero quota for ivory trade.

In February 1999, CITES Standing Committee gave the final go ahead and in April of 1999 the trade of raw ivory took place.

A return to any sort of normalcy in the ivory trade would also be contingent on the development and implementation of a system for data gathering and monitoring of both the legal and illegal trade in elephant products.

During the interim between COP 10 and 11, three organizations, the IUCN, TRAFFIC, and CITES began working on a two pronged elephant population monitoring system entitled MIKE and ETIS.

MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants), is a land based information gathering system with a statistical process used to choose 45 locations in Africa and 15 in Asia to personally gather data on elephant populations, especially information on illegal killings and enforcement efforts.

ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System) is a statistics and data base system intended to gather information about all aspects of trade in elephant products, including the number and place of seizures of illegally traded elephant products as well as the course of legally traded products. Implementation is far from complete. Data collection, especially from member states has been slow, unreliable at times, and inconsistent. The hope is for continued improvements as the relevant CITES bodies publicize the system to all relevant member states.

The program’s success continues to be questioned, because of ongoing reports of elephant poaching across the African continent. A 2012 report, :

The Acting MIKE Coordinator presented the results of the MIKE analysis included in the report. The analysis was based on information from 8,575 carcass records from 2002-2011, collected in 44 sites in 27 countries in Africa. For 2011 alone, there were 1,408 carcasses from 36 sites in 18 countries. He then presented the continental trends for PIKE (the Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants), which have been increasing since 2006, with 2011 the highest continental PIKE level on record, and representing a statistically significant increase from 2010. The subregional PIKE trends were presented, with particular attention to the fact that the increase in PIKE was now generalized across all four African subregions. In all subregions, the PIKE level was higher than 0.5,
a figure which likely indicates that elephant populations are likely to be in net decline.