CITES CoP18: NRDC’s Plan to Protect Imperiled Species

African elephants, rhinos, giraffes, Asian otters, vaquita, and sharks are some of the many species that need our help right now.
Credit: Elly Pepper

African elephants, rhinos, giraffes, Asian otters, vaquita, and sharks are some of the many species that need our help right now.

As we gear up for the upcoming 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Geneva, we have high hopes that the global community will heed the warnings of the United Nations’ IPBES report. It warns that one million species face extinction due to human actions, many within decades, and that this will have cascading effects on ecosystems and the human population unless we bring about transformative change.

What does this entail? For one, it means making CITES a stronger international convention that lives up to its purpose “to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.” Recent studies show that the convention—the only one we have to protect wildlife imperiled by trade—is failing to protect many species threatened with extinction. And when it does, there’s considerable delay between when a species is recognized as needing protection, when it receives it formally under CITES, and when the international community beefs up enforcement and capacity to provide a true conservation benefit.

NRDC’s work at CITES will consist of fighting for protections for species facing a high risk of extinction and working to make the convention stronger in small—but important—ways through resolutions and decisions of the parties. Here’s a taste of how we'll be fighting to protect certain species at the conference.

African Elephants

Despite the fact that African elephants continue to die more often from poaching for their ivory tusks than from natural causes, some countries are still fighting to resume the ivory trade. Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe have submitted a proposal that would enable them to resume ivory trade, though at this point, the only viable market would be Japan. And Zambia submitted a proposal to downlist its elephant population from Appendix I to Appendix II to trade in elephant trophies, hides, and leather goods. As history has proven, legalizing the trade in elephant ivory only leads to parallel illegal markets since it’s difficult to discern the age or type of ivory. Fortunately, there is one species proposal from a suite of African countries that would increase protections for elephants by transferring certain elephant populations from Appendix II to Appendix I. We’ll be supporting this proposal and fighting back against the proposals to reopen trade. We’ll also continue to encourage CITES parties to enact domestic ivory bans—as countries including China, the United States, and France have done—by strengthening a resolution passed at the last CoP in 2016.  

Credit: Courtesy Dr. Nicole Duplaix

Asian Otters

Recent investigations (see examples here and here) paint a grim picture for Asia’s freshwater otters, which have declined by more than 30 percent largely due to habitat destruction, the global trade in otter skins, and the international pet trade, including the online trade in baby otters for pets and attractions in coffee shops, fueled by social media. We’ll be working to stop this by supporting two proposals: one for smooth-coated otters and another for small-clawed otters. Our goal is to transfer these species from Appendix II to Appendix I, thereby banning the international commercial trade in live otters and their parts and skins. 

Credit: Paula Olson / NOAA


With only around 10 remaining, this CITES-protected species is the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. The vaquita is a small, rare porpoise found only in Mexico’s northern Gulf of California, and its population has plummeted in the last two decades, a victim of bycatch in rampant illegal gillnet fishing. In particular, bycatch of vaquita in illegal gillnets used to catch totoaba (which is also protected under CITES) has decimated the species in recent years as the swim bladder of the totoaba fish is coveted in China. The CITES parties have taken action to limit the illegal trade in totoaba, asking Mexico, China, the United States, and other countries to report on their efforts and cooperate in eliminating the totoaba trade. Unfortunately, while China has taken important steps to tackle the illegal sale of totoaba swim bladders, Mexico has utterly failed to control the illegal totoaba trade. With the vaquita on track to be extinct before the next Conference of the Parties in 2022, this is CITES’ last chance to take robust action against Mexico to force it to meet its obligations and save the vaquita.

Credit: iStock


While giraffes face many threats, including habitat loss and disease, the international trade in giraffe parts and hunting trophies is also contributing to their 40 percent decline in the past 30 years. That’s why we’re garnering support for a proposal to list giraffes on CITES Appendix II. While we lack international trade data for giraffes since they’re not listed under CITES, U.S. data shows that the giraffe parts trade is soaring with the equivalent of at least 3,751 giraffes imported to the United States between 2006 and 2015 for their bones (often carved into items like knife handles), skins (often used for rugs and apparel), and other parts. An Appendix II listing would ensure that all giraffe parts in trade are legally acquired (instead of from poached giraffes) and enable the collection of international trade data that would help make the case for greater protections down the road.

Credit: Volodymyr Burdiak/Deposit Photos


While all five rhino species (black, Indian, Sumatran, Javan, and white) are protected under CITES Appendix I due to the rampant trade in their horns for purported medicinal benefits, countries will, yet again, attempt to open up the rhino horn trade. We’ll be fighting proposals from Eswatini (formerly, Swaziland) and Namibia that would allow them to sell their southern white rhinos on the international market. Additionally, South Africa has proposed to essentially double its trophy hunting quota for black rhinos, which are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. Given that any legal trade in rhino horn would open a vast illegal market, this is a terrible idea we’ll be working to defeat.   

Credit: Shutterstock


NRDC will also be fighting for new protections for sharks, rays, and their relatives, many of which have suffered steep declines, driven largely by overfishing. These species are captured as bycatch and are increasingly targeted for their meat and fins, including to supply the lucrative global shark fin trade. NRDC will be supporting the listing of mako sharks, guitarfishes, and wedgefishes under Appendix II, which will require that CITES parties control international trade in these species so that it does not threaten their survival in the wild. This includes verifying that species are legally acquired and ensuring that exports are sustainable, based on a non-detriment finding.  We’ll also be galvanizing support for proposed revisions to an existing shark resolution (Res. Conf. 12.6) that would strengthen the ways that CITES parties are implementing protections for CITES-listed sharks. This would include documenting shark fins obtained prior to CITES listing and increasing inspections of shipments as they transit intermediary countries in order to ensure they are legal.

While some of the various proposals to protect species and improve enforcement and compliance with the convention are new, many of them are just repeats of same old bad ideas from the past—especially when it comes to elephants and rhinos. The notion that endangered species can be “sustainability utilized” for commercial profit is what helped create our current biodiversity crisis in the first place. CITES exists to ensure that all species threatened with extinction are protected from international commercial exploitation. We will be fighting at this conference and at conferences in the years to come to ensure that CITES lives up to its original mandate and purpose, as well as its newfound promise in this modern age of mass extinction.

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