As CITES turns 50, a report on the ‘extinction business’ shows urgent need
Tracy Keeling, The Canary
March 3, 2023
It’s World Wildlife Day on 3 March. This year, the event coincides with the
50th anniversary of the global wildlife trading body. World Wildlife Day is
an annual celebration of the wild animals and plants that people share the
planet with and depend on. With this year’s celebration also marking the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and
Flora’s (CITES) anniversary, it should also be a time of particular
reflection – and change.
A recent report about trade in our near kin, non-human primates,
illustrates well why this is the case.
The Extinction Business
The EMS Foundation is a South African nonprofit. It focuses on addressing
the needs of vulnerable groups, including wild animals. In conjunction with
another organisation, Ban Animal Trading, EMS released the latest
instalment of a series titled “The Extinction Business” on 22 February.
The series takes a deep dive into the international wildlife trade,
particularly in relation to South Africa. The latest part is titled “Our
Kin Discarded” and is focused on South Africa’s trade in non-human primates.
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The organisations looked into the trade that took place via a single port
of exit between 2016 and 2022. Utilising CITES trade data, along with
responses to freedom of information requests from central and provincial
authorities, the report points to a significant trade in South Africa’s
During the seven year period, the country traded 10,226 non-human primates.
Most of these were exports, with some imports and re-exports, meaning they
were exported but had previously been imported. The trades included 3,857
live individuals. The rest were specimens, such as skulls, skins, and
hunting trophies. These specimens represented – meaning amounted to –
single individuals, the report said.
The trades involved several species, including samango monkeys, vervet
monkeys, chacma baboons, southern lesser bushbabies, thick-tailed
bushbabies, and Mozambique dwarf bushbabies.
Wildlife Trade System Teeming with Issues
The global wildlife trade is extensive. A 2019 paper indicated that around
one-quarter of land-based vertebrates are subject to it. The fishing
industry, meanwhile, trades trillions of wild lives every year. In this
context, the figures for South Africa’s trade in non-human primates are not
out of the ordinary. However, as the report’s authors pointed out:
Nonhuman primates are without question cognitively, behaviorally,
emotionally, and socially some of the most complex animal species on earth.
Their capture and removal from their natural habitats and social family
structures is extremely cruel and inflicts suffering, distress which
results in injuries and death.
Other elements of the report certainly give cause for pause too. In looking
into the trade, EMS and Ban Animal Trading found multiple issues with how
the system currently operates. These included opaque information, data
discrepancies, and “largely absent verification measures”.
For instance, the report found species’ listed under “non-standard common
names” in trade records, rather than their “proper Latin species name”.
This means that “it is difficult to collate or review data at a species
level”, the report said. Moreover, many of the individuals traded, and
their destinations, were ‘untraceable’, according to the report.
CITES Data is “Poor Quality”
CITES oversees the international trade in around 5,950 species of animals
through a permitting system. It lists species in three appendices,
effectively according to their risk of extinction. The trade requirements
for each category differ respectively. Countries have management and
scientific authorities to handle permitting and are supposed to submit
records annually to CITES’ central authority, namely its secretariat.
The “Our Kin Discarded” report described CITES trade data produced through
this system as “poor quality”. A 2021 complaint to CITES over the trade in
elephants between Laos and China illustrated this issue well. The complaint
highlighted that the data those countries submitted to the CITES
secretariat contained discrepancies. Namely, the relevant elephant import
and export numbers did not match. Moreover, the complaint alleged that
neither country appeared to report some of the elephant trades.
Although discrepancies in CITES’ records are not hard to come by, they
generally fly under the radar. The non-human primate report pointed to why
this is the case. It argued that the system lacks trade analytics to catch
irregularities and what it called “trade risk flags”.
The report also demonstrated that risk flags are badly needed. It
highlighted that South Africa exported 1,389 live non-human primates to
Bangladesh during the period. The purpose of the trade for all these
individuals was commercial, i.e., to make money. But the report highlighted
that Bangladesh “prohibits the commercial trade in (nonhuman) primates”. In
other words, as the report explained, the non-human primates:
were exported “lawfully” from South Africa but never imported legally
No Accountability for Importing Countries
Previous reports in “The Extinction Business” series have focused on other
groups of species. The first report probed South Africa’s trade in
reptiles. That report also pointed to insufficiencies in the CITES system.
It argued that:
The legal trade in live wildlife is defined by loopholes and precludes
accountability and transparency.
The reptile trade is an area that Canadian nonprofit Monitor Conservation
Research Society also knows something about. Established in 2017, the
organisation is dedicated to raising alarm bells about the impact of trade
on lesser-known species. It is made up of a team with backgrounds in
ecology, conservation, criminology, and political science. Monitor produces
research to fill the vast information gaps on species that rarely get
attention. Many of these species are subject to high levels of trade.
Therefore, according to the nonprofit these species are at risk of being
traded into extinction.
Echoing EMS’ concerns, Monitor’s executive director Chris Shepherd told the
Canary that the global wildlife trade lacks accountability. This is
particularly true in relation to importing countries, he said. Shepherd
also noted there were no mechanisms in place to ensure that they are “held
responsible for making sure imports are legal”.
The complaint over the elephant trades between Laos and China provided an
illustration of this issue too. One of the concerns it raised was that Laos
misused CITES classifications regarding the ‘source’ of the elephants. The
country claimed that they were bred in captivity, rather than in the wild,
which the complaint disputed. The captive-bred classification limited the
protections from trade for the elephants in question. With Laos unable to
prove the legitimacy of its classification, CITES suspended Laos’ trade in
elephants on these grounds. But the importing country – China – faced no
CITES Should be “Turned on its Head”
Shepherd highlighted another fundamental issue too. CITES listings are
supposed to regulate the trade in species so that it doesn’t threaten their
survival in the wild. Naturally, in order not to threaten their status in
the wild, there needs to be a clear baseline for what that status is.
Shepherd explained that there is a “booming” trade in reptiles for the pet,
meat, medicine, and luxury goods industries. Some but not all of the
species involved have CITES listings. Shepherd said that for most reptiles
in the trade, no adequate baseline understanding of their wild status
exists. For some species, almost nothing is known about them.
In other words, the requisite understanding that CITES needs to make
informed decisions is often lacking.
Shepherd argued that: CITES should be turned on its head and everything
should be listed until you can prove trade can be done sustainably.
This echoes comments that biologist and co-founder of the German nonprofit
Pro Wildlife Sandra Altherr made to the Canary in January. She called for
“a reversal of the burden of proof” in the wildlife trade. Moreover, the
organisations Nature Needs More and For the Love of Wildlife proposed
debate on reforms like this at a CITES conference in 2019.
CITES Needs to be Effective
However, despite clear and consistent evidence of systemic issues with the
international trade in wildlife, parties to the CITES convention – meaning
countries – aren’t exactly rushing headlong towards the necessary change.
Amid a global biodiversity crisis that has direct exploitation as its
second largest cause, it’s imperative that countries spring into action. As
CITES’ secretary-general, Ivonne Higuero, said in comments to mark the
body’s anniversary and World Wildlife Day:
In CITES’ 50th year, there has never been more of a need for effective
wildlife conservation. We are seeing unprecedented drops in wild
populations of both animals and plants.
CITES plays a key role in whether wildlife conservation is effective. The
body holds the power to help turn the tide on the extinction crisis, but
only if it puts that power towards potent and meaningful use.