CITES CoP17 – Africa in a nutshell

Another CITES Conference of the Parties has concluded, with a mixed bag of results. The sheer volume of press releases and social media commentary can be confusing, even bewildering. And so here is a brief summary of the main decisions that affect African species.


– CITES appendix I: No legal international trade.

– CITES appendix II: International trade is permitted, subject to issue of export permits by relevant authorities.

©David Winch

©David Winch

1. Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa requested the legalisation of international trade in ivory.

Request denied.

2. The Elephant Coalition (29 countries) and Botswana requested that elephants in Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe be up-listed from CITES appendix II to I.

Request denied.

Note that elephants in all other African countries are already on CITES I and that the CITES II listing for the four countries above prohibits international trade in ivory. In effect the trophy hunting of elephants in those four countries and other countries (where the CITES I classification specifically permits hunting) will continue unaffected, as will the sale of live elephants. Elephant trophies may be exported, subject to specific bans already in place by target countries, but ivory may not be traded internationally (domestic sales are permissible).

©Kelly Winkler

©Kelly Winkler

Swaziland requested that they be allowed to trade internationally in white rhino horn.

Request denied

Note that white rhinos are listed on CITES II, with an annotation preventing the trade in rhino horn. South Africa permits domestic trade in rhino horn – although there are ongoing legal proceedings in this regard.

©Janine Avery

©Janine Avery

Several nations requested the up-listing of lions from CITES appendix II to CITES appendix I, which would kill the growing trade in lion bones and other parts.

Request denied, but no wild lion parts may be traded. Lion parts from captive-bred lions can be traded by South Africa, with that country required to set quotas and report to CITES each year.

In effect this decision entrenches and legitimises the lion breeding programmes in South Africa, and opens up possible channels for the laundering of wild lion parts. Trophy hunting of wild and captive-bred lions continues unaffected.


Request to up-list all pangolins from CITES II to CITES 1 was approved

Grey parrots

Request to up-list grey parrots from CITES II to CITES 1 was approved

This means that no wild-caught grey parrots can be traded internationally. Breeders can trade internationally in captive-bred grey parrots if they register their breeding facility with CITES (which will require upholding of specific standards) and permitting processes. There is no restriction on breeders selling captive-bred grey parrots domestically.

©David Winch

©David Winch

Request to increase protective measures against the exotic pet trade (cheetahs are already on CITES 1) was approved. States agreed to co-operate more fully, and emphasis was placed on a unified approach for social media platforms.

Sharks and rays

Request made to up-list silky sharks, three species of thresher sharks and nine species of mobula rays to CITES appendix II was approved. This means that trade in these species will now have to be proven to be sustainable.

Parting thoughts

Although these changes provide a few more tools to prevent illegal international trade, they are only as effective as the degree to which the law is respected, applied and enforced. Most trafficking of wildlife happens outside of the law, and I am not convinced that any of these changes will have significant positive effects. Some of them might even drive illegal trade deeper underground than it is currently.

There seems to be an enormous void between CITES and those empowered on the ground to implement effective conservation strategies. What also comes through from social media chatter is a growing sense that CITES is purely an elite United Nations club, of frustration that foreigners with no understanding of the reality on the ground get to make fundamentally important decisions, and that it’s time for Africa to be in charge of its own wildlife management decisions.

Simon Espley

Simon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, a chartered accountant and CEO of Africa Geographic. His travels in Africa are in search of wilderness, real people with interesting stories and elusive birds. He lives in Cape Town with his wife Lizz and 2 Jack Russells, and when not travelling or working he will be on his mountain bike somewhere out there. His motto is "Live for now, have fun, be good, tread lightly and respect others. And embrace change". The views expressed in his posts are his own. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

  • Jason Du Plessis

    Your last paragraph is absolutely spot on! These are desk jockeys making important decisions for the future of our wildlife and it seems that they are making the wrong decisions. But where and how could another African organisation start to protect its own?

  • MarkB

    I’m no expert, but I would think you could have all the good intentions, investment, rangers and technology in the world and it would still be practically impossible to protect these species. It seems to me the only way to effectively address the issue is from the demand side. That would mean severe laws and penalties, such as life imprisonment, for anyone trading or purchasing these products in demand countries such as Vietnam, China and the UAE, and strict enforcement of these laws. Extreme international pressure should be applied to these governments to act immediately. Major media campaigns in demand countries along the lines of anti-smoking campaigns could also be effective demand curtailment measures by targeting cultural attitudes that continue to drive demand. If this isn’t done soon, it will be too late.

  • James MacMillan, DVM

    Letting Africa be in charge of managing these wild species, which are a WORLD HERITAGE (or at least SHOULD be) is like letting each US state be in charge of managing their wildlife. Then the states controlled by hunters and ranchers (whose herds are ‘decimated’ each year by wolves, mountain lions and bears, according to them) just open their borders and park lands to the Walter Palmers of the world, and more wall space in their ‘trophy rooms’ is covered by dead animal heads and skins, attesting to the manhood of the ‘person’ owning the home. Seems to work well for everyone except the wildlife. Bad idea.

  • joao

    hey lions had a bad deal ; i think ;

  • joao

    bottom line ; and he knows what is talking about ;

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