CITES, conservation, and geopolitics

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

There it is.  I have survived another week of UN negotiations on wildlife trade.  And emerged content.

I’ve been in Geneva to contribute to the technical working group on animals for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.  It meets to execute the will of the 175 nations that are signatories to CITES, trying to make sure that international trade does not harm wild populations of animals and plants.

It’s a bit hard to explain these meetings.  You spend a lot of time watching global geopolitics played out over some poor quail or shark.  The meetings are full of process and procedure that can slow things to a glacial pace.  Many of the issues seem hardly to have moved since I was last involved seven years ago.  Some are clearly going backwards.  But an important few are actually creeping in the right direction.  Read up on the Saker falcon, for example.

It takes a while to get your head around the fact that each and every one of the 175 signatory nations to CITES (the Parties) has the right to do more or less exactly what it wants.  You can negotiate and you can nudge but you sure as heck can’t order any nation around.  Nor would you want to try.  Any nation that gets fed up can just withdraw from the issue or the Convention.  So the approach has to be softly, softly, working to support their aspirations.  Your persuasive capacity comes from the fact that signatory nations want to be seen as good global citizens, doing the right thing.

Marine fishes are some of the most controversial issues that CITES and its technical Animals Committee ever tackles.  Many nations are apprehensive about treating fish as just another form of wildlife, fearful that this might lead to onerous restrictions with high economic or social costs.  Yet again this meeting, many nations claimed that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization was the appropriate body to deal with fisheries issues, even though (or maybe because?) the FAO has no regulatory capacity at all and has very limited or no interest in many fish species.

Against this background, I am happy that the Animals Committee agreed that nations should be asked to explain their rationale for allowing current high volumes of seahorse exports. The seahorses were the first marine fishes of commercial importance to be brought under CITES management in recent times, and continue to set precedent.  Countries all over the Indo-Pacific will now be asked for the scientific basis for their exports of six seahorse species.  And signatory nations in West Africa will need to justify their export levels of the West African seahorse (H. algiricus), newly in trade and already exported at about 600,000 animals per year.

Given the outcome, it was well worth being here.  I did rather wonder about investing a week in these interminable proceedings.  But the solid science and strong trade data that Project Seahorse always produces definitely helped convince signatory nations to begin this trade review.  They listened and asked questions and dissented but agreed in the end to do what is right for our quirky fishes.  That should give us a chance to figure out how well CITES is working for these seven seahorse species and what more we need to do to help.  Plus I got a quick snapshot update in current global geopolitics, played out at a snail’s pace that enthralled even as it exasperated.

I appreciated being part of the IUCN delegation.  This strong intergovernmental organization has a great record of credible evidence-based contributions to CITES.

For the report on the Working Group on the Review of Significant Trade, go to

For more on the 25th meeting of the CITES Animals Committee in general, go to

Dr. Amanda Vincent is the Director of Project Seahorse.