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International wildlife conference passes sweeping protections for 500 species

Sand tiger shark surrounded by fish in Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
Image Credit: Flickr/Greg McFall/NOAA

Last month the world’s largest wildlife summit, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITIES, made the landmark decision to protect over 500 endangered species including sharks, turtles, lizards, frogs, and 160 amphibian species, whose populations are increasingly falling due to the exotic pet trade.

The summit, held in the shadow of the multinational climate change conference known as COP 27 was perhaps most notable for the steps signatories agreed to take to protect and preserve some of the most endangered species in the ocean -- sharks.

The treaty agreed to protect 90 shark species, and limited or regulated the commercial trade of 54 species. These species include the tiger, bull and blue sharks which are the most targeted for the fin trade.

Every year, the fin trade wipes out millions of sharks, and more than 70% of species traded are at risk of extinction. According to a 2022 study published in Conservation Letters, a journal for conservation biology, sharks living in close proximity to our coasts may be one of the gravest conservation concerns as our planet undergoes a massive biodiversity crisis. However, unlike many threatened species, who are feeling the heat of our warming world, these 54 shark species are at risk due to direct human abuse.

When assessed in 2021, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species found that one third of sharks, and their relatives rays and chimeras, are threatened. With DNA detective work with fin trimmings, the researchers of the present study found the same thing. They ruled overfishing as likely a deciding factor of the immediate declining trends of sharks and ray populations.

Accordingly, CITIES’ new protections include both sharks and their relatives: six small hammerhead shark species and 37 types of guitarfish, which are shark-like rays, were added to the list.

As reported in The Guardian, collectively, the three proposals passed at this year’s summit in Panama City increase shark protections by 25% compared to prior regulations. The shark fin trade is commonly associated with the Chinese delicacy of shark fin soup. Fin soup is both culturally significant, as well as a lucrative market rising in western economies, underscoring the need for regulations that are both sustainable and culturally mindful.

“The Parties to CITES are fully aware of their responsibility to address the biodiversity loss crisis by taking action to ensure that the international trade in wildlife is sustainable, legal and traceable,” Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero said in a statement.

“Trade underpins human well-being, but we need to mend our relationship with nature,” she said. “The decisions coming from this meeting will serve the interests of conservation and wildlife trade, that doesn’t threaten the existence of species of plants and animals in the wild, for future generations.”

A small frog rests on a verdant, green leaf.
Image Credit: Wix

According to the Associated Press, the demand for turtle pets in the States, Asia, and Europe is associated with a spike in poaching.

The problem is not new, as thousands of reptile species are threatened due to underregulated global trade.

A 2020 Nature study found that over 35% of reptile species are traded online. While this sounds illegal, three-quarters of those reptiles were not covered by international trade regulation at the time of the study’s publication, despite the fact that many of them are endangered or range-restricted species, especially in Asia’s hotspots.

Since 90% of traded reptiles species and half of individual reptiles are captured directly from the wild, the study identifies this, among climate change, pollution, and habitat loss, as a key driver of the sixth mass extinction.

Aside from reptiles and amphibians, the summit also saw protections for 150 species of trees, namely tropical timber, and for several more species of songbirds, who sing a similar story to the sharks and amphibians: risk of being traded to extinction.

In addition to extensive protections, the CITIES delegates also rejected a proposal to reopen the ivory trade, a ban the body enacted in 1989. Since its formation, the body has curbed the illegal trade of ivory, rhino horns, whales, and sea turtles. However, the existing ivory ban was a point of contention, because in cash-poor developing countries, the illegal wildlife trade is a $10 billion-a-year business.

An elephant walks across a shrub-filled grassland with dried yellow grass and brownish shrubs underneath a grey sky.
Image Credit: Wix

Particularly, Zimbabwe is seeking international support to be allowed to sell its stockpile of seized ivory. The country’s $600 million worth of ivory was taken from illegal poachers, and now the country wants to use the money to conserve a rapidly growing elephant population. As AP reports, due to low funds the nation is ill-equipped to combat poaching, as it rises in tandem. However, the proposal was struck down, as many delegates feared that it would open a Pandora’s box of international ivory smuggling.

Despite the fear of releasing the pin on ivory trading, a proposal by African nations and conservation groups to ban the trade of the common hippopotamus did not pass. Instead, it stagnated as 56 delegates voted in favor and 56 against.

Needing two-thirds of the vote to pass, the regulation would’ve prohibited all exports of hippos, who are targeted by traders for their ivory teeth and body parts. However, the European Union argued that many countries have healthy hippo populations and that trade isn’t a factor in their decline. Still, the move may have served as a precautionary measure.

As Stephen Carmody, director of programs at the Wildlife Justice Commission, told Mongabay, “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.”

In addition to hippos, many delegates hoped for more robust regulations for long-endangered animals. Still, CoP19 is largely hailed as a success, as a record number of unique species are now under international protection.

​​“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 statement.

“In the midst of a heart-wrenching extinction crisis, we need global agreement to fight for all species, even when it’s contentious.”

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