Proposals to resume international trade in ivory and rhino horn were rejected this week at a meeting in Panama City where representatives from over 170 nations gathered to deliberate over regulations to protect some of the world's most threatened species. Namibia and Zimbabwe tried in vain to convince member states at the 19th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties - CoP19 - to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to legalise trade in elephant ivory, while eSwatini lost their bid to sell rhino horn.

The international trade in rhino horn has been illegal since 1977.

The African nations proposed that money raised from the sale of ivory and rhino stockpiles could benefit conservation efforts, but their bids were dismissed with the vast majority of parties voting against legalisation. No discrepancy was made for horns or ivory attained from animals that died naturally or were euthanised by wildlife officials.

2014 02 12 Elephants Ivory Ornaments
At least 20,000 elephants are poached in Africa every year to feed demand for ivory products. Image: USFWS Mountain-Prairie

A worldwide ban in the trade of ivory has been in place since 1989, although controversial, once-off sales were permitted in 1999 and 2008. Historically, ivory has been used to produce carvings, figurines and ornaments as well being applied as a healing element in traditional medicine. 

The international trade in rhino horn has been illegal since 1977, but well-connected poaching syndicates continue to smuggle horns out of rhino-range nations to meet demand in Asian countries like Vietnam and China. The current rhino poaching crisis began in 2008 and almost 10,000 rhinos have been killed for their horns in the last decade. In South Africa, where the bulk of the world's remaining rhinos live, 259 of the animals were poached between January and June of this year.

In another rhino-related proposal at CoP19, Namibia was successful in their bid to relax trade controls for live white rhinos, creating concern among some conservationists that the animals will be at greater risk. The decision, however, only applies to the sale of live animals which must be kept within their natural, historic range. The WWF stated that the new regulations will "incentivize rhino conservation in Namibia, a country which has been successful in protecting its rhino populations and creating multi-agency law enforcement teams to address the illegal trafficking of rhino horn. It also makes more rhinos available for range expansion which is a proven conservation tool for the recovery of both white and black rhino numbers across the continent."

A bid from ten African nations to effect a total ban on the trade of hippopotamuses was not recommended for adoption. Hippo teeth are a less common alternative to elephant ivory and something that poachers may look to should elephants become scarcer or more stringently protected. "The banning of the trade in hippo teeth would have been a step in the right direction at the moment because [traffickers] do look for alternatives to ivory — things like giant clams, mammoth ivory, hippo teeth — those look-alike products that can be substituted," Stephen Carmody, director of programmes at the Wildlife Justice Commission, told Mongabay." Despite this decision, Carmody – like many other conservationists – felt that the conference was a success.

Hippo ivory is an alternative to elephant tusks which may put the animals at risk.

Sharks and rays fared particularly well with 54 species of requiem sharks, 6 species of hammerheads, and 37 guitarfish species now included in Appendix II of CITES which ensures tighter trade restrictions. Tropical songbirds also received increased regulations as did a number of tree species – although the protections applied to Latin America's Cumaru and trumpet trees will only come into force two years from now at which stage the species may have already been overexploited.

Whether or not the decisions made by CITES in Panama will have a significant impact depends on their implementation.

"Globally cherished mammals such as rhinos, hippos, elephants and leopards didn’t receive increased protections at this meeting while a bunch of wonderful weirdos won conservation victories," Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release. "In the midst of a heart-wrenching extinction crisis, we need global agreement to fight for all species, even when it’s contentious. We’ll leave a very lonely planet for the next generation unless we fight against the extinction of every creature, not just those that are politically easy to protect."