CITES meeting a chance for trade sanctions against countries failing to act on illegal wildlife trade

EIA’s Wildlife campaigners will be heading off to Lyon, France next week to participate in the 74th meeting of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Standing Committee.

This will be the first in-person CITES meeting since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic and a packed agenda will ensure a few late nights for the EIA team, which will be pushing for a range of outcomes needed to protect endangered species from the ravages of burgeoning illegal trade perpetuated by wildlife crime syndicates.

A key focus for us during the week-long meeting will be to push for suspension of trade in CITES-listed species for several member countries whose failure to comply with decisions of the Convention threatens the survival of a range of species, including elephants, Asian big cats, pangolins and the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.

Our Wildlife team has produced a briefing of key priorities and recommendations for SC74.

Ivory seizure in Nigeria

EIA will be calling for trade suspension for Nigeria, which has emerged as the main exit route for ivory and pangolin scales destined for the main consumer markets in East Asia. Since the start of 2021, more than 6,200kg of ivory and 25,245kg pangolin scales have been seized linked to Nigeria, although no successful prosecutions or convictions have been reported in recent years.

A spate of seizures in the country during the past year indicate improved enforcement, butt the country’s legal framework remains inadequate for the challenge in hand, with transnational wildlife trafficking syndicates active in the country and corruption rife.

The CITES Secretariat has judged that Nigeria’s progress in implementing the 17 recommendations agreed at the 70th Standing Committee is unsatisfactory and EIA supports the suspension of trade until the recommendations are fully implemented and recommends that Nigeria requests support from the CITES Compliance Assistance Programme to do so.

EIA is also calling for Nigeria’s status as ‘compliant’ under the CITES National Legislation be downgraded due to weaknesses in the country’s legal framework, such as contradictory laws between the federal and state levels. During an assessment of the legal framework in Nigeria, EIA discovered that an amendment to a law increasing penalties for international trafficking offences supposedly passed in 2015 and reported to CITES under the country’s National Ivory Action Plan had in fact not been passed, meaning current legislation is inadequate and outdated.

Dead tiger cubs for sale via social media in Laos

Our campaigners will also be seeking compliance measures against Laos, which continues to be a major destination and transit for illegal wildlife. Despite 10 years of CITES scrutiny of the country on compliance failings, Laos remains a haven for wildlife traffickers after apparent political support for action progress has ground to a halt.

For example, at the CITES Conference of the Parties in 2016 the Laos Government undertook to phase out tiger farms in the country, a move endorsed by then Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith who, in 2018, ordered the closure of tiger and other wildlife farms.

This message does not seem to have reached the tiger farm owners, who continue to be implicated in the trafficking of tigers – in fact, the farms have been expanding. Drone footage obtained by EIA reveals that the tiger breeding facility situated within the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in northern Laos, run by a transnational organised crime group headed by Chinese national Zhao Wei, has been expanded.

At the meeting, EIA will be calling for non-compliance measures against Mexico due to its abject failure to curb illegal fishing of totoaba, a practise which is driving the vaquita porpoise, the world’s most endangered cetacean, towards extinction. There are fewer than 10 vaquita left, with the remorseless decline caused by entanglement in gillnets used for illegal fishing of totoaba fish, whose swim bladder is prized in China.

A CITES decision in 2019 required Mexico to implement seven actions to address illegal fishing and trafficking of totoaba. To date, four of the actions have not been implemented. The most egregious failure has been the inability to curb illegal fishing in the so-called ‘zero tolerance’ area in the vaquita refuge. In November 2021, observers reported seeing 117 vessels in the area using gillnets and no enforcement vessels were seen in the area.

Despite such failings, Mexico is seeking approval at the meeting for a captive breeding facility for totoaba. EIA strongly opposes such a move, which will perpetuate a market for totoaba swim bladders.

While in Lyon, the EIA team will also continue its mission to force the closure of domestic markets for endangered Appendix 1 species, with a focus on China’s ongoing use of leopard bones and pangolin scales as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine products.

Pangolin scales seized in Vietnam, 2019

We will also be shining a spotlight on Vietnam, which has emerged as the main import hub in Asia for elephant ivory and pangolin scales.

Despite progress in amending its Penal Code and increasing prosecutions of wildlife criminals in the country, Vietnam has totally failed to convert major seizures of ivory and pangolin scales at seaports into prosecutions of the culprits involved.

EIA has calculated that there have been at least 12 major seizures weighing more than 500kg since 2018 in Vietnam, totalling 15.7 tonnes of ivory and 42.3 tonnes of pangolin scales. Not a single prosecution has taken place. EIA is calling for the CITES Standing Committee to require Vietnam to report on the status of prosecutions linked to these major seizures.

You can follow the work of EIA’s team in Lyon via our social media (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter) and a summary report of the main outcomes from the meeting will be uploaded soon after the Standing Committee ends on 11 March. In addition, the proceedings of SC74 will be broadcast live via YouTube.

• Read about the SC74 priorities of EIA’s US office.