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Written by: Melissa Reitz for Conservation Action Trust

As the countdown begins until the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP 17) for CITES, which commences in Johannesburg on 24 September 2016, conservationists question the relevance of the issues at hand and what can be expected from the host country, South Africa.

With a huge range of pressing issues to be addressed this year, many concerns are pertinent to South Africa. From pangolins and parrots, to lions, elephants and rhinos, it is hoped that there will be enough time to cover everything in sufficient detail.

©Colin Bell
©Colin Bell

CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which attempts to protect species against over-exploitation through international trade. Referring to global conservation agencies like the IUCN for recommendations, CITES decisions are based on accepted proposals to make amendments to trade regulations on threatened species.

Species are listed by CITES in three appendices:

1. Appendix I species no commercial international trade is permitted.

2. In Appendix II are those for which trade must be controlled – like the one-off sale of ivory in 2008 by South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, which many believe stimulated ivory markets and caused an upsurge in poaching.

3. And in Appendix III are the species that are protected in at least one country.

“Although elephant, lion and rhino will be in the public eye at this year’s CoP, essentially all species are important and discussions around plants, fish or the iconic elephant are no less or more important than another,” says Claire Patterson-Abrolat of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

That said, here’s a look at the main focal points that will be reviewed at this year’s conference:


Since the release of the Great Elephant Census, which revealed that savannah elephant numbers across Africa have dropped by a third in seven years due to poaching, it is clear that urgent action is needed to prevent their extinction.

“Elephants and the ivory trade will be front and centre at this CoP. Given the results of the Great Elephant Census, parties to CITES are going to have to put the politics of listing proposals and discussions aside and focus on urgent measures that have to be adopted to ensure the future viability of Africa’s elephant populations,” says Jason Bell, Director of the Elephant Programme at IFAW.

But South Africa is opposing an IUCN motion passed this weekend at the World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, which urgently requests all governments to shut down their domestic markets for ivory.

“Japan, Namibia and South Africa are desperately pushing for a series of amendments (to Motion 007) but the floor is rejecting them all systematically,” says Wildlands CEO, Andrew Venter. With 91% of IUCN members voting in favour of the motion, it will be very difficult for CITES parties to ignore this consensus at COP 17.

Furthermore, by submitting a counter-proposal to the African Elephant Coalition’s CoP17 submission, which pushes for an Appendix 1 listing for all African elephant populations, South Africa is making it clear that it does not support a ban in domestic ivory trade, which many – including the IUCN – believe creates opportunities to launder illegal ivory under the guise of legality.

“We are concerned that CoP 17 is likely to be a re-run of the old pattern, with proposals and counter-proposals on legal international ivory trade and related matters, all diverting the attention of parties from the real issues,” says a statement by WWF.

©Francis Garrard


In contrast, it seems the trade in rhino horn is settled for the moment. The South African government has confirmed it will not request a lifting of the ban on international trade at this year’s CoP, although Swaziland has done so.

“South Africa is not opposed to trade in rhino horn but was put in a position where it would have been political suicide for it to submit a trade proposal to CoP17. Other than a few economic interests, nearly everyone agreed that it would have been a bad idea,” says Bell.

However, Ian Michler, safari operator and environmental journalist, believes that Swaziland’s proposal for trade in rhino horn “may well be a proxy for South Africa – a testing of the waters. In this way the pro-trade lobby and South Africa gets to see what needs to be done for their own submission at the next CoP.”

©Michael Lorentz


Lions are another species marked for attention. Although South Africa’s lion population is stable, its captive lion breeding industry remains a contentious issue, and a motion approved last week at the World Conservation Congress calls for South Africa to review legislation and terminate the practice of ‘canned hunting’ and captive lion breeding.

“From a South African perspective, one of the most relevant issues to be discussed at CoP 17 is uplifting lion to Appendix I,” says Andrew Venter. “But moving lion to Appendix I may not stop the captive predator breeding trade. In practise, it may strengthen the industry as CITES encourages captive breeding of Appendix I species as a conservation tool, arguing that this takes the pressure off wild populations.”

Although South Africa has 7,000 lions in captivity, leading global conservation groups do not attribute any conservation value to these.

©Colin Bell


With estimates of a million illegally trafficked pangolins in the last 10 years, the species is the most poached mammal on earth. As a result there appears to be an unanimous agreement amongst pangolin range states to transfer all eight species to an Appendix I listing.

“There are rigorous measures up for debate that would enhance the international response to the trafficking of pangolins and are essential to ensuring the proper implementation the new listings. We strongly support these additional measures and hope that they will also be overwhelmingly endorsed,” says a WWF statement.

African grey parrots

A proposal to end international trade in wild-caught African grey parrots has also been submitted. Selling more than 40,000 birds each year, South Africa is the leading exporter of captive bred African greys, which have been recorded by CITES as the single most traded wild bird in the world.

“The captive breeding industry in some parts of the world, especially South Africa and the Middle East, relies heavily on wild birds as breeding stocks,” says Rowan Martin, Director of the World Parrot Trust.

“South Africa has also been a major importer of wild-caught grey parrots, which have provided inexpensive breeding stock for the development of a lucrative captive-breeding industry.”

South Africa has some serious choices to make at the end of this month and has the opportunity to gain the world’s respect by aligning with proposals to secure the survival of some of Africa’s most iconic species instead of fighting a lone battle against world opinion on these issues. Let’s see what will be decided.

Shenton Safaris
Conservation Action Trust

The Conservation Action Trust works for the protection of threatened species by promoting the objective investigation and reporting of important conservation and environmental issues affecting these species. We hope to foster broader awareness and bring about greater public support of vital conservation and environmental issues.