Over the past two weeks, decisions affecting hundreds of threatened species were being hammered out at a major wildlife summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. This year's meeting of the Convention in the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) involved 182 nations and some 3,500 delegates and observers – and it's been a busy time.

CITES protects many thousands of plant and animal species by regulating commercial trade, and the job of delegates at the summit was to vote on a range of proposals to restrict or relax the trade rules. The sheer number of decisions and proposals can seem overwhelming – which is why this summary of the meeting's big outcomes will come in handy. (Keep your eye on our Facebook page for more post-summit news, interviews and videos!)


The threat:
Demand for ivory has fuelled a surge in elephant poaching across Africa in recent years, with steep population declines in parts of the continent. Many experts believe that strictly reinforcing the existing global ban on the ivory trade is the only way to protect elephants, but not everyone agrees. Some experts suggest that carefully controlled trade should be permitted, and African nations with more stable elephant populations have been pushing for this.

How it works: 
In most African countries, elephants are already listed under CITES Appendix I, which offers maximum protection and prohibits all trade. But in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, where populations are more stable, elephants fall under Appendix II, which permits some domestic trade, including trophy hunting.

The decision:
Delegates voted overwhelmingly against bids by Namibia and Zimbabwe to open up their ivory markets. However, in a separate vote, the anti-trade camp failed to expand the highest level of international protection to all of Africa's elephants. The nations that make up the African Elephant Coalition were joined by Botswana in their push to "uplist" elephants across the continent to Appendix 1, which would have strictly prevented all trade in their ivory. But the two-thirds majority required to do so was not reached, with the European Union and its 28 member states (voting in one bloc) proving to be a key opposing force.

The reaction:
Conservationists were very vocal in condemning the decision to deny elephants more protection, with much blame directed at the EU. "The vote against up-listing all elephants to Appendix 1 will be seen as a green light by the poachers, traffickers, organised criminal networks and terrorists who make money off illegal trade in ivory," Professor Lee White, director of Gabon's national parks agency, told the Independent. "Up-listing would have made been a clear sign to the world that ivory cannot be traded."
However, trade proponents criticised the decision to block sales of legal ivory. "In the history of mankind there is not one record of any prohibition action being a success. Most certainly any attempt to impose prohibition on the sale of ivory and rhino horn will fail," said Ron Thomson of non-profit organisation the True Green Alliance.


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Pangolins are the world's most-trafficked wild mammals. Image: Ajit Huilgol/US Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr

The threat:
Their plight was not widely known until just recently, but these scaly anteaters are the world's most trafficked mammals, with more than a million wild pangolins killed in just the past ten years to meet Asian demand for their meat and scales.

The decision:
A complete ban on trade in all eight pangolin species. 114 countries voted in favour of the ban, Indonesia voted against, while five nations, including China, abstained. Pangolins are now listed under CITES Appendix I, which is the highest level of protection under international law.  

The reaction:
Cheers and applause, but also concern that any new protections will prove futile without adequate enforcement.


Source: Instagram

The threat:
From genetic bottlenecks to habitat loss, the world's remaining cheetah populations are already at serious risk, but the past few years have brought another threat: demand for the spotted cats as luxury pets in the Middle East, which has spread through social media. Experts say some 250 cheetah cubs are taken from the wild each year and then trafficked to places like Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, where they are seen as status symbols, and can be bought and sold without a licence. 

The decision: 
Cheetahs earned the highest CITES protection way back in 1975, but delegates at this year's summit voted to approve a series of new measures specifically designed to curb the exotic pet trade. According to the BBC, these included:

  • greater co-operation between states with cheetahs in the wild and consumer states
  • raising awareness
  • crucially, a unified approach to tackling social media.

The reaction: "Social media platforms perpetuate and exacerbates the trade in many ways," said Nick Mitchell from the Wildlife Conservation Society. "What's different now is that we have the secretariat of Cites examining this, and it has the approval of 180 countries – this is all parties and it carries a lot of weight."


The threat:
There's growing concern among conservationists that lion parts are increasingly being substituted for rare tiger parts to feed the high demand for tiger products in Asia. Experts are worried that this trend could fuel lion poaching in Africa.

The decision:
Several nations, including Gabon and Mali, had been pushing for a total ban on international commercial trade in lions or lion parts, but nations failed to reach agreement on the proposal. Instead, a compromise agreement was passed that protects wild lions only – bones, teeth and claws from animals bred in captivity can still be legally sold. Hunting trophies can also be legally exported.

Anything else? 
As the only exporter of lion parts for commercial purposes, South Africa will now face new obligations. The country breeds lions in captivity for its controversial canned hunting industry, and the bones from such animals are increasingly being sold to Asia. The country will now be required to set export quotas for these lion parts and report to CITES each year.

The reaction: 
Widespread anger and condemnation on social media at the diluted agreement, and concern among experts. "[A]s with the trade of parts of captive-bred tigers, the trade in bone from captive-bred lion keeps demand for big cat bone alive, and complicates enforcement efforts," the WWF's Colman O'Criodain told the Guardian


Image: Reuters

The threat:
The rhino poaching crisis in southern Africa has received a lot of media attention in recent years, and the deaths of thousands of animals have led to fiery debate on the right solution to the poaching problem, pitting those who believe legal trade in rhino horn is the answer against those who fiercely oppose it. While South Africa recently legalised domestic trade, buying and selling horns across international borders has been illegal since 1977. 

The decision:
Arguing that the global ban is ineffective, and that lifting it would help generate much-needed cash for conservation and rhino protection, Swaziland asked CITES to allow it to sell stockpiled horns from white rhinos, and to green-light annual sales from live animals whose horns have been removed. White rhinos are currently listed as "near threatened" by the IUCN (unlike black rhinos, which are critically endangered). Delegates voted 26 to 100 against lifting the ban, but some nations that are home to rhinos, including South Africa, expressed support for Swaziland's bid.

The reaction:
Relief from many conservationists who believe trade would boost demand for horn in Asia, interfere with enforcement, and could lead to the laundering of illegal horn into the legal trade. "At a time when rhinoceros are more under threat than ever from poachers due to rapidly increasing black market prices in their horn, this decision by Parties to deny Swaziland's request to trade in white rhino horn – is to be applauded," said Kelvin Alie, IFAW Director Wildlife Trade. 
But some experts, as well as South African delegates and groups representing rhino owners, criticised the decision.


Many shark species are threatened by the trade in their fins. The cartilage from the fins is used mainly to give shark fin soup, an expensive delicacy in China, thicker consistency. Image: Reuters 

The threat:
Like many species of shark, thresher and silky sharks have seen huge population declines over the past few decades as demand for their fins for use in Asian soup continues to surge. Devil rays are highly prized for their gill plates which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

The decision:
Despite some opposition from Japan, Iceland and China, votes to list all of these species under CITES Appendix II were won with very large majorities (between 70% and 80%). The new protections will help to control the trade in these species and ensure that fisheries are sustainable. "A listing on CITES Appendix II ensures that all thresher fins that are traded internationally are from sustainably managed fisheries that do not harm the status of these species populations in the wild," explained Luke Warwick, director of the global shark conservation campaign at The Pew Charitable Trusts. "Additionally, any catch of these species [has] to be accurately recorded." 

The reaction:
The new protections have been met with praise from marine conservationists who see them as a huge step forward for the highly threatened species. "I am just elated," WWF's Andy Cornish told the Guardian. "It's a big win for all these sharks and rays as governments around the world will now have to act to reduce the overfishing that threatens them."
A minority of opponents to the new listing argued that the evidence for increased protections is unreliable and that the implementation of the decision will be difficult and confusing.


The threat:
Its popularity as a pet has made the African grey parrot one of the world's most trafficked birds. Over the past few decades, millions of them have been taken from the wild. Populations have also been decimated by poaching and rampant habitat loss, with declines of up to 99% in some parts of their range.

The decision:
Seven African nations, including Gabon, Angola and Nigeria, submitted a proposal for increased protections to curb unregulated trapping and covert trade. Attendees voted 95 to 35 to include the species in Appendix I, which prohibits all international trade in wild parrots.

The reaction:
"Banning the trade will make it easier for law enforcement agencies to crack down on the poachers and smugglers, and give the remaining wild populations some much-needed breathing space," said the WWF.

"If this bird could talk — and it certainly can — the African grey parrot would say thank you," said Susan Lieberman from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in a statement. "Now with the protection of Appendix I, and the enhanced enforcement that is needed, the voice of the African grey parrot will not be silenced across the great forests of Africa."


Helmeted Hornbill Contraband 2015 01 26
Helmeted hornbill (left) ©Doug Janson, and carved hornbill beaks (right) illegally sold on the internet.

The threat:
Here's one type of wildlife contraband you may not have heard of: the carved beaks of helmeted hornbills. Unlike the hollow helmets (or "casques") of other species, the casques of helmeted hornbills are solid and composed of an ivory-like substance, which makes them particularly desirable for carving. The main consumer market is China, where the beaks are crafted into jewellery and decorative ornaments. Demand for this "ivory on wings" has been soaring, putting hornbill populations at risk. 

The decision:
The species was already listed in Appendix I, which made all trade in hornbill parts illegal, but countries attending the summit have now approved a series of new measures to raise public awareness of illegal trade and improve the enforcement of existing protections. 

The reaction:
"This is a great victory for the helmeted hornbill that has been ruthlessly hunted for its red ivory as the elephant has been killed off for its ivory," said Noviar Andayani, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Indonesia Program. "Many have heard about the elephant ivory crisis and now it is time to hear more about the helmeted hornbill ivory crisis and take swift action to save it."


Top header image: Arno Meintjes, Flickr