- Sri Lanka was supposed to host the 18th Conference of the Parties to CITES in May 2019, but the event has been rescheduled for Geneva in August due to security concerns after the Easter Sunday bombings.
- Sri Lanka is involved in nine proposals concerning 43 species, the most for a single party at the upcoming CoP. Six of the proposals concern species of reptiles and spiders endemic to Sri Lanka or South Asia, and the other three concern species of saltwater fish.
- The CITES Secretariat has recommended rejecting four of Sri Lanka’s proposals and adopting five, highlighting how lack of data is hampering conservation efforts in the country.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
The 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP) to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, should have started on May 23 in Colombo. It was supposed to showcase Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity to an international audience, boost local conservation efforts, and vitalize the country’s ecotourism.
However, the terrorist attacks in Colombo on Easter Sunday that killed 259 people created security concerns. After a U.N. security assessment and lobbying from different organizations, the CITES secretary-general announced on June 12 that the conference would be moved to the CITES headquarters in Geneva and take place in August.
Ultimately, safety concerns and the need for a timely conduction of the conference outweighed other considerations. As a triannual conference with several thousand participants, CITES CoPs are planned long in advance, and finding another venue to keep the timelines intact was essential.
However, the shift to Geneva does not mean that Sri Lanka has been left outside the door. It has submitted or co-submitted more proposals than any other single nation. Out of 57 total proposals, Sri Lanka is involved in almost 16 percent, many of which concern species endemic to the island. By virtue of that alone, it will play a large role during the conference and retain some of the spotlight.
Sri Lanka’s proposals
So, what is Sri Lanka proposing? Do its proposals have a reasonable chance of success?
The goal of CITES is to protect wild flora and fauna from unsustainable exploitation and extinction caused by international trade. It maintains three lists of species with descending levels of protection: Appendix I, which prohibits any international trade of species threatened by extinction; Appendix II, which monitors and regulates the trade of species that might otherwise become threatened; and Appendix III, which provides international cooperation to help CITES parties protect certain species.
Only parties to CITES can propose amendments to Appendices I and II, and only the CoP can decide on these proposals.
The CoP strives for consensus decisions but can otherwise pass proposals with a two-thirds majority. Decisions on appendix amendments are informed by scientific data provided by the parties and outside organizations like the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. They are mainly based on the criteria outlined in resolution Conf. 9.24 of CoP9 in 1994 (revised at COP17 in 2016).
Sri Lanka wants to include several endemic reptiles into Appendix I, specifically two species of garden lizards, five species of horned lizards, two species of pygmy lizards, and one species of hump-nosed lizard. None of them are on any appendix so far, although their export from Sri Lanka is banned under the domestic Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Sri Lanka and India also want to move the Indian star tortoise from Appendix II to Appendix I to curb their flourishing illegal trade.
Together with the EU and a host of other countries, Sri Lanka also proposes to include several marine species into Appendix II: two species of mako sharks, six species of giant guitarfish, and 10 species of wedgefish. Finally, Sri Lanka and the United States want to list 15 species of ornamental tarantulas in Appendix II as well.
This brings Sri Lanka to nine proposals and 43 species, 25 of them terrestrial and 18 aquatic. However, when the CITES Secretariat presented its recommendations on May 1, it recommended four of Sri Lanka’s nine proposals for rejection and expressed some concerns over the other five.
To be eligible for inclusion in Appendix I, species must be threatened by extinction because they either have a small and vulnerable population, a limited geographic range, or a marked decline in population size.
The detailed assessment of Sri Lanka’s five Appendix I proposals highlights one of the main problems for Sri Lankan conservationism: scarcity of data. The assessment is littered with phrases such as “is unclear,” “indicates,” “is inferred,” “suggests,” “information is very limited,” “quotes anecdotal information,” “opportunistic observations,” or “little is known.”
Despite this, the Secretariat has applied a precautionary approach and recommended the adoption of three lizard proposals. It recommended rejecting the hump-nosed lizard and the Indian star tortoise, the latter because of its large populations and the fact that most traded specimens come from captive breeding, which is not covered under CITES.
The criteria for Appendix II are more lenient: the regulation of trade must be necessary to prevent species from becoming eligible for Appendix I. The Secretariat has recommended the inclusion of giant guitarfish and wedgefish but ruled for the rejection of the mako shark proposal after extensive feedback from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Expert Panel stating that the shark populations are stable and not projected to decline significantly.
Sri Lanka and the United States jointly submitted the last proposal, which had been rejected before at CoP11 in 2000. It concerns Poecilotheria, a genus of 15 species of completely arboreal tarantulas threatened by deforestation and habitat loss. Their range is limited to Sri Lanka and India, but the proposal lacks hard evidence of the impact of legal and illegal trade on their wild population. Therefore, the CITES Secretariat has again recommended the rejection of this proposal.
This August in Geneva, Sri Lanka has the chance to make a difference and draw attention to its biodiversity, its range of endemic species, its potential for ecotourism, and its fight against wildlife trafficking. It remains to be seen which proposals will be adopted, but the Secretariat’s recommendations have highlighted problems that hinder conservation efforts in the country.
The issues of lacking wildlife data and wildlife trafficking will need to be addressed to preserve biodiversity in Sri Lanka and around the globe.
Hear an interview with the new Secretary General of CITES about the upcoming COP in August 2019 on Mongabay’s podcast, here.
Dennis Mombauer is a freelance writer and researcher on climate change, conservation and special needs education based in Colombo. He focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation and sustainable urban development as well as on autism spectrum disorder.
Banner image of a lyre-headed lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus), a species endemic to Sri Lanka, courtesy of Anslem de Silva.