- A month after the devastating Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka that resulted in the postponement of the 18th Meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP18) of CITES, the Geneva-based secretariat appears likely to hold the meeting in its home city.
- The meeting, originally scheduled for May 23 to June 3 in Colombo, was postponed indefinitely amid security concerns following the April 21 series of bombings at churches and hotels that claimed more than 250 lives in the Indian Ocean island.
- A U.N. security assessment is currently underway in Sri Lanka, with the findings expected to be submitted to the CITES Secretariat by May 31.
- Conservationists say the delay will affect much-needed funding and activities to protect species from the international wildlife trade.
COLOMBO — A month after a series of Easter Sunday bombings rocked Sri Lanka and claimed 258 lives, including those of 46 foreign nationals, a top U.N. conservation summit scheduled to take place in Colombo is now likely to be moved to Geneva.
The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was to hold its 18th Conference of Parties (CoP18) meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, from May 23 through June 3. But organizers announced April 26 that the event was indefinitely postponed, in the aftermath of the devastating bomb blasts that struck a series of churches and hotels in Colombo and surrounding areas on April 21.
A month after the bombings, there’s still confusion over when or whether Sri Lanka will still host the wildlife trade summit.
Local media reported a Sri Lankan official as saying the government had proposed postponing the event to October. But the CITES Secretariat, administered by the United Nations Environment Programme and headquartered in Geneva, appears to favor other options: hosting the conference in August in the Swiss city, or rescheduling to early January 2020, due to the considerable logistics involved. A final decision is expected in early June, after the CITES Standing Committee considers the Colombo security assessment.
In her latest statement, issued May 17, CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero said the Sri Lankan government had proposed alternative dates for CoP18 in Colombo of Sept. 1 to 13.
“In line with United Nations practices, the Secretariat is, therefore, working with the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) to assess the security situation on the ground with Sri Lankan colleagues, UNDSS officials and the United Nations Resident Coordinator for the country. We expect the assessment at the end of May 2019,” Higuero said in the statement.
Under a CITES resolution, all CoP meetings must be held in Switzerland, “unless a candidate host country pays the difference in costs between its proposed venue and Switzerland.”
“With this in mind, and conscious of the need to hold the meeting as soon as possible and the uncertainties over the situation in Sri Lanka, we have been exploring possible options for holding CoP18 in Switzerland in case the need arises,” Higuero said.
She added: “Finding suitable premises for such a large meeting at short notice is challenging. At present, the only options would appear to be in the second half of August 2019 and in early January 2020. The Secretariat is working on the financial, legal and logistical considerations for all options and expect to be in a position to provide guidance and a recommendation to the Standing Committee in early June.”
The initial statement announcing the postponement of CoP18 was unprecedented, said the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which was scheduled to attend the meeting.
“All of us at WCS are heartbroken for the victims and their families, and the people of Sri Lanka, and we support this decision to postpone this important meeting,” Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy for WCS, said in a statement.
“This is the first time in its more than 45-year history that a CITES CoP has been postponed less than a month before the meeting. The WCS delegation to the meeting, with representatives from all continents, looks forward to the new date, and to visiting the beautiful country of Sri Lanka, and to strong conservation decisions benefiting wildlife species subject to international trade.”
Numerous conservation programs and activities are dependent on the outcome of the meeting, for which delegates had proposed increased trade protections for a host of plant and animal species. The current uncertainty about when and where CoP18 will take place therefore contributes not just to delays in processes to regulate the wildlife trade, but also in the mobilization of vital funds for global conservation efforts.
Attempts by Mongabay to obtain direct responses from the CITES Secretariat and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the impact of the postponement and critical interventions that may be affected due to delays in funding went unreplied.
Sri Lankan herpetologist Anslem de Silva told Mongabay that any delay could “spell danger for highly threatened species that needs to be considered for higher levels of global protection to ensure species survival.”
“There are many important proposals for consideration by the parties at CoP18,” he said. “A unique proposal is to protect the woolly mammoth, now an extinct species, which calls for considering a new process as conservation of extinct species has not been up for discussion.”
Vidya Abhayagunawardane, an environmentalist who facilitated the destruction of a major stockpile of elephant ivory in 2015, told Mongabay that he was skeptical about Sri Lanka’s prospects for hosting the meeting.
“While it will be a tremendous boost for conservation efforts here and highlight the island’s unique biodiversity, given the current setup, it is difficult to believe that a decision will be made in favor of Sri Lanka as [the CoP18] venue,” he said.
The Sri Lankan government has put the economic impact of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks on the island’s tourism industry at a conservative estimate of about $2 billion. A multi-sectoral assessment of the economic cost to the country is expected to be much higher.
Banner image: The lyre head lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) and the leaf-nosed lizard (Ceratophora tennentii) are endemic reptile species from Sri Lanka and highly sought after as domestic pets in Europe. Sri Lanka has called for greater protection for its endemic lizards from the international wildlife trade ahead of the CITES Conference of Parties. Urgently sought protections for this and other species hang in the balance amid uncertainty over when and where the meeting will be held. Images courtesy of Anslem de Silva.