The Daily Matter

It's hammer time: video of hammerhead sharks, manta rays and other species protected under CITES

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 March, 2013, 6:42pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 10:59am

It was a big week for marine conservationists worldwide, with most of the 178 countries and territories at the CITES Cop16 in Bangkok agreeing to add several species of sharks and rays to the list of species protected by the international treaty.

Porbeagles, oceanic whitetips, manta rays and several species of hammerhead sharks are now listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, effectively banning international trade unless shipments are accompanied by documentation showing they were caught legally.

More than two dozen species of shark are officially endangered, and over 100 considered vulnerable or near threatened. Sharks, like manta rays, are considered valuable by countries with dive tourism industries, with places such as Fiji, the Maldives and the Bahamas seeing major benefits. Eleven countries, including the US, Brazil and Egypt, proposed regulating trade in the species.

All countries have 18 months to comply with the decision. 

We know navigating the world of international conservation is tricky, so The Daily Matter brings you a quick primer for understanding CITES.

What is it, and what does it aim to do?

CITES is an agreement among 178 governments that sets out guidelines for the trade of endangered and threatened species globally. Its aim is to make sure that international trade doesn't threaten the survival of the species in the wild. CITES currently has about 29,000 plant species and 5,000 animal species listed in three appendices, I, II and III.

What impact does a CITES listing have, how does it work?

Each country has its own set of laws, fines and regulations that follow guidelines laid down by CITES, but generally those who violate the terms may be fined, imprisoned and the plants and animals they trade seized.

For example, in Thailand, the customs department has over the years made several seizures of pangolins, crocodiles and other endangered species while monitoring their ports and other points of entry. The laws and regulations drawn up under CITES allows them to prosecute the poachers and deter others from taking up the trade. It also gives Thai authorities a platform to share information about monitoring and enforcing CITES on the wildlife trade with their counterparts in territories such as Hong Kong and mainland China where these animals and their parts might end up.

CITES has a photo gallery of the most commonly traded species.

A species listed in Appendix I means it is threatened with extinction, and trade in it is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Such species cannot be legally traded commercially, and specimens for scientific research need to have import and export licences. These include tigers, the red panda and the scimitar-horned oryx.

Those listed in Appendix II can be traded, but only with licensing so that governments can ensure the trade isn’t destroying the population in the wild. African elephants in some nations are listed under Appendix I and others under II. Those countries where they are listed under the latter are permitted to trade in elephants and their parts, as long as the they manage to keep up numbers in the wild. The basking shark, the longsnout seahorse and jackass penguins are listed under Appendix II.

Those in Appendix III are species that are already being looked at by one country, but need help from other member countries to curb the trade. The binturong, the Himalayan marmot, and Deppe's squirrel are listed under Appendix III.

If you’re looking to trade in animals, plants, or goods made from their parts, the CITES website provides a comprehensive list of species listed, and other details on how CITES works.

How are decisions made?

Countries and territories that have signed the agreement meet every three years to assess the conservation status of the plants and animals listed. Some want species downgraded, others want to add new species to the list.

While it’s the governments that vote for the changes, NGOs, industry lobbyists and other individuals and organisations affected by the listings will make their case to the officials. Negotiations happen before and during the sessions, and country delegates will often try and bargain with one another, creating alliances and deals to get the best outcome for their interests.

What are some of the pitfalls?

CITES does not cover all species that are endangered. The Atlantic and southern bluefin tuna may be listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List, but they are not protected under CITES. Countries such as Japan have been instrumental in blocking the tuna from being added to the list, as Japanese businesses profit massively from the sale of tuna. At an auction earlier this year, a single bluefin tuna brought in US$1.76 million.

It only deals with the trade aspect of conservation. One of the reasons many of these plants and animals become endangered is through habitat loss, and the convention does not address how individual countries manage their resources.

It doesn’t always curb illegal trade. African elephants and their tusks are listed under CITES, but thousands of elephants are still killed each year for their ivory. The Hong Kong government alone has seized about 16 tonnes of ivory, which it keeps in a secret storehouse somewhere in the city.

For those of you interested in knowing your scalloped from your great hammerhead, here’s a how to video.