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As Covid-19 pandemic deepens, global wildlife treaty faces scrutiny

As many conservation groups jumped at the chance the Covid-19 pandemic offered to highlight the link between pandemics and wildlife exploitation, a global trade regulator drew criticism as it appeared to distance itself from the crisis.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, popularly known as CITES, is a rare animal: an international environmental treaty with teeth. It regulates the global trade in some of the world’s most threatened species, with the power to ban it when needed.

Now, 45 years after it came into force, CITES appears to be having its moment of reckoning as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. The convention is ratified by almost all countries of the world, including the US and China, and is binding. Even the Paris climate agreement is not enforceable.

In March, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, questions flew thick and fast about the novel coronavirus’s link to the wildlife trade. While conservation groups jumped at the chance to highlight the relationship between pandemics and wildlife exploitation, the CITES Secretariat, responsible for coordinating the work of its parties, appeared to distance itself from the crisis.

“Matters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate,” it said in a statement, “and therefore the CITES Secretariat does not have the competence to make comments regarding the recent news on the possible links between human consumption of wild animals and Covid-19.”

This sparked outrage and invited scrutiny. “What the statement actually said is that they don’t care. They don’t care about what is happening in the world; they think it’s none of their business,” said Vera Weber, president of the Switzerland-based NGO Franz Weber Foundation. “And it says they can’t do anything about it, which is not true because trade, be it legal or illegal, is fueling these pandemics.”

Can CITES as it exists today help ward off the next pandemic, many conservationists are wondering. It should be part of the solution, many believe.

Matters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate and therefore the CITES Secretariat does not have the competence to make comments regarding the recent news on the possible links between human consumption of wild animals and Covid-19.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, popularly (CITES)

“CITES has enjoyed keeping its rather narrow focus,” John Scanlon, who served as CITES secretary-general from 2010 to 2018, told Mongabay. He said that means it doesn’t directly address non-trade issues like climate impacts, invasive species or animal welfare. “It has tended to want to stick to the sustainability issues,” said Scanlon, who now consults for the NGO African Parks.

That narrow focus is a blessing, according to some experts. Protecting threatened species from being decimated by the international wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, is a monumental undertaking. And the multilateral treaty has recorded some hard-won successes, most notably the banning of trade in elephant ivory in 1990. In the decade preceding the ban, over 50,000 African elephants were hunted down every year for their tusks.

However, the ban has had limited success in stifling the illegal ivory trade. CITES relies on national governments to enforce its edicts, and without their consistent and sustained cooperation, many CITES regulations fail to achieve their objectives.

Some see a by-the-book reading of its mandate as a failing in the face of the coronavirus disaster. “The secretariat tends to forget that CITES cannot only be characterised as a trade agreement, but it is also part of international environmental law,” Weber said.

Many experts, including Weber, favor expanding the agreement, rather than replacing or sidelining it.

“It seems that CITES, as it stands, has become obsolete. It needs to be renewed. It needs to be modernised. It needs to be taken into the 21st century,” she said. “We can’t go on talking about trading in endangered species, when we have such big biodiversity loss in the world. This loss of biodiversity and loss of habitats are also causing pandemics such as Covid-19.”

Getting countries to agree on enforceable treaties is an arduous process that takes years. The Paris climate accord came on the back of over twenty years of climate talks and at least four years of purposeful negotiations. The urgency created by the pandemic may not generate enough political will to produce a new agreement.

CITES covers around 35,000 species of plants and animals whose survival experts believe may be threatened by international trade. The convention classifies them into three categories or appendices, each subject to increasingly restrictive trade regulations based on the risk that global trade poses to their populations in the wild. Though large, the treaty covers only a fraction of the 8.7 million species of plants and animals on Earth.

The convention does not regulate trade in many of the animals known to pose a health risk to humans.

Horseshoe bats, a family of bats considered to be a potential reservoir for the virus that causes SARS and a possible host species for the novel coronavirus, are not listed in CITES. Neither is the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), the intermediary species from which the SARS coronavirus may have jumped to humans.

What has made it difficult for groups to get behind calls for change is the gaping hole at the center of the Covid-19 chronicle. We still do not know how the novel coronavirus, called SARS–CoV-2, jumped from animals to humans. This is likely to remain a mystery for months, if not years.

It may remain a mystery forever. Even today, no one is quite sure how the Ebola virus slid from wild animals into human populations. Scientists have discounted as baseless the idea that the novel coronavirus was engineered in a lab or accidentally released from a lab.

Currently, most experts believe the spillover happened when someone foraging for food or involved in trading live wild animals came in contact with an animal carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus or an ancestor of the virus. This animal may have been a bat or an intermediary host.

There are suggestions that the virus jumped to humans from pangolins. This has led to more questions for CITES. While it may not regulate trade in horseshoe bats or palm civets, pangolins enjoy the highest level of protection under the convention. Trade in all eight species of these threatened mammals is illegal. These scaly anteaters are considered the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world.

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised questions that go beyond the international illegal wildlife trade. The virus could have entered human communities through legal or illegal trade in wild animals.  Pangolins are found not just in Africa but also in South Asia and Southeast Asia, including in China.  

A recent paper noted similarities between the coronavirus infecting humans and one found in Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica), native to Southeast Asia. The virus could have emerged from and been transported by animals captured domestically or transported from other countries.

The uncertainty has allowed some policymakers and agencies to resist calls for change to environmental policies. For others, however, it means they need to cast a broader net.

“Any environmental treaty has to be a living instrument because it needs to keep adapting and responding to threats to the species that the treaty deals with,” said Shruti Suresh, a lawyer with the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “The existing CITES framework can be applied to tackle public health concerns associated with wildlife trade, for example, through initiatives to close domestic markets and eliminate demand.”

Another possible approach would be to craft a new agreement to address trade in species that pose a threat to human health. But some experts note that such a treaty could be duplicative of CITES, and that might make the regulatory framework more cumbersome.

“[What] we are suggesting is that the CITES treaty essentially be amended to support the regulation of trade in wild animals that affects humans,” said Dan Ashe from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a U.S.-based NGO. “We have an existing mechanism for enforcement, that seems to us to be an order of magnitude more available as opposed to building a brand new international enforceable agreement.”

But amending CITES may not be enough to address the issues raised by the Covid-19 pandemic, even those related to wildlife exploitation.

Apart from being expanded, there is a pressing need to strengthen CITES and reinforce the architecture of global environmental law in which it is embedded, experts say.

The treaty does not tackle wildlife crime, per se, and does not apply to environmental transgressions that occur within national boundaries. It lays down regulations for the import, export and re-export of certain wildlife and wildlife products, which have to be enforced by the countries that are signatories to the convention. Countries have their own laws that deal with crimes like poaching, illegal logging and illegal fishing.

Domestic crimes fuel the transnational illicit trade in wildlife and wildlife products — everything from live animals and animal parts, to precious timber. Wildlife trafficking is one of the most lucrative illegal trades in the world, rivaling in value the trade in drugs, weapons, and human traffic.  But it is often not treated as a serious crime by many countries.

Because of the complexity of the global trade in wildlife, CITES collaborates with organisations like INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, and the World Customs Organization through the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime.

“At the moment we have this sort of mishmash system,” Scanlon said. “the implications of these wildlife crimes are so great, we need to focus the international community’s attention on it, and the attention of the criminal justice system on it.”

Scanlon said he favored raising the profile of wildlife crimes by adding a protocol under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), which currently focuses primarily on human trafficking and the illegal arms trade.

Suresh agreed that this would be a positive step. “It would shine a spotlight on wildlife crime as organised crime, not just something that is about legal and illegal trade, which is the lens that CITES tends to use.” It could ensure better coordination and support from enforcement agencies in countries, she said.

The responsibility to bring about change, however, will ultimately rest with the nations that are party to these agreements. There is a growing sense that difficult decisions need to be made and implemented soon, and CITES may be a place to start.

“The decision-making authorities under the CITES are the world governments that have signed up to it. If we want this issue to be front and center and addressed we don’t have to wait for the CITES secretariat,” Suresh said. “The parties need to be bringing this issue front and center [at] the next CITES meeting whether that’s EU, Asian states, African states or China itself.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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