From 26 September through 4 October of 2016 more than 3,500 people attended the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which convened in Johannesburg, South Africa. Meeting only once every three years, CoP17 opened with addresses from South African President Jacob Zuma and their Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa.

Topics of discussion and resolution related to wildlife crime; corruption; cybercrime; legalization of ivory trade; legalization of a rhino horn trade; captive breeding; targeted enforcement measures relating to illegal trade of wildlife and marine species; laundering of wild-caught species into legal trade markets; traceability; local communities’ representation in wildlife management; and youth involvement in CITES. The first-ever wildlife crime partnerships forum was also hosted at CoP17, with international agencies discussing how best to fight the illegal wildlife trade. The second global meeting of Wildlife Enforcement Networks also convened to discuss ways that regional groups can maintain their CITES obligations and improve their effectiveness in combating illegal trafficking through existing tools and law enforcement agencies. Summarizing the proceedings of CoP17, Executive Director of TRAFFIC Steven Broad said that “There was significant progress on issues relating to captive breeding, synthetic products, demand reduction, traceability, cybercrime and even corruption, as well as the higher profile species.”

Tanzania's ivory stockpile in 1988. Source: EIA - Vanishing Point (page 9).

Tanzania’s ivory stockpile in 1988. Source: EIA – Vanishing Point (page 9).

Notably, Swaziland’s proposal to create a legal, international rhino horn trade was rejected. Elephants also received several resolutions and decisions benefiting them, including a plan for countries to phase out their domestic ivory markets as well as voting not to adopt a “decision-making mechanism” to consider a future legal ivory trade, something that had been under discussion since 2013. In 1997 and 2008 CITES had allowed one-off sales of government-held ivory stockpiles from Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and were later joined by South Africa, to the nations of China and Japan. Investigations since then have suggested that these one-off sales helped spur elephant poaching throughout Africa and renewed interest in ivory as a luxury item in Asian markets. Efforts by Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe to propose a legal, international ivory trade were rejected by other Conference members. Although China had previously said it would phase out its domestic ivory markets, it too voiced support for a limited, legal ivory trade.

Southern African elephant and lion populations were denied an uplisting to Appendix I by the United States and other member-nations, despite a notable increase in elephant poaching in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Elephants within South Africa remain under Appendix II protections while elephants in many other African nations have been listed on Appendix I for higher international protections due to governmental support, smaller population numbers, and/or greater persecution. However it was agreed by member-nations that the African elephant along with the African lion, cheetah, totoaba, and many other marine and terrestrial species required targeted enforcement measures to prevent and reduce illegal trade.

Among the species that achieved listing or uplisting on CITES Appendix I are: all eight species of pangolin, the African grey parrot, and the helmeted hornbill.

Species that were recently listed in Appendix II include: over 300 species of tree in the genus Dalbergia (sometimes sold as Rosewoods), silky shark, all three extant species of thresher shark, and at least some species of devil ray. Due to perceived conservation successes, the cape mountain zebra, several species of crocodiles and the wood bison were downlisted to Appendix II.