New York: John Scanlon was the former head of the global convention on international wildlife trade and Secretary-General of the Secretariat overseeing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) from 2010 until 2018. He says: to prevent future pandemics, illegal wildlife trafficking should be confronted with the same impact by the international law enforcers that treat terrorism and human trafficking.
What is CITES?
CITES works in association with the United Nation’s Environment Programme and was established as a legally binding agreement to prevent the cross-border legal trade in wild animals and plants from threatening species survival. This is just a regulator not a law enforcing agency under UN.
Wildlife trafficking is common in many Asian and African countries, although all continents witness this where, even mafias control the process. Mr Scanlon says that in a post Covid-19 world, profound measures are needed to tackle the scale of illegal trade which drains government revenues along with impacting ecosystems and threatening public health. “We now need to fully embed this in the international criminal justice framework,” he observed.
CITES has the authority to protect about 6000 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants. Legal trade accounts for around one million transactions each year. CITES can enforce sanctions on countries who violate the convention, the most serious being a suspension in all wildlife trade. However, because CITES is voluntary, a country could leave the convention rather than comply.
CITES Has limitations
But there are some other aspects where CITES has limitations. The convention is solely focused on wildlife which moves across international borders and not within countries or a bloc, like the EU. Nor does the convention address human health, animal health or how invasive a species might be to a country. It doesn’t tackle wildlife markets or consumption. “The parties wanted to keep the convention very narrowly focused on the issue of over exploitation, looking at trade from a biological perspective and if it will threaten the survival of the species,” Mr Scanlon said.
Anyway, as per studies on Scanlon’s report, CITES has monitored well-regulated trade in alligators, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported, and vicunas, a relative of the llama. Under Mr Scanlon’s tenure, protections for a number of new marine species, including sharks and rays, along with timber species were added. The volume of species covered by CITES quadrupled from 1975 to 2014. However, Mr Scanlon said that the pandemic has exposed gaps in CITES’ approach. “CITES cannot just look at authorised trade on the basis of its threat to the species and not be troubled by public health or animal health risk. I don’t think that can cut it in 2020,” he said. “With all the knowledge we have from scientists and public health officials, we’ve come to understand in a devastating way through the Covid-19 pandemic that we can’t isolate these things,” he added.
Why is wildlife trafficking a threat?
Some animals that can be a threat are not restricted by CITES. Pangolins and bats, are for instance. Mr Scanlon pointed to pangolins to illustrate the convention’s difficulty in tackling wildlife crime. Despite having the highest-level of protection, illegal trade in the “scaly ant-eaters” is at a record high. Pangolins have been suggested as a potential intermediary host of Covid-19 although research is so far inconclusive. The corona virus, which originated in Wuhan, China in late 2019, is believed to have jumped from an animal to human in a “zoonotic spill-over” event. Scientists have suggested the virus was transmitted from a bat via an intermediary species.