The World Wildlife Conference has wrapped up in Johannesburg with delegates tightening rules on the trafficking of species including sharks, pangolins and parrots. The meeting has been described as a "game changer."
Things could soon be looking up for a number of endangered animal species. At least that was the feeling after 10 days of talks and key decisions at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference, which has just wrapped up in South Africa's economic hub, Johannesburg.
Over the course of the summit, delegates from 182 countries accepted 51 of 61 proposals to reform wildlife trade restrictions on hundreds of species. CITES chief John Scanlon said the meeting was "a game changer for the planet's most vulnerable wild animals and plants."
The more than 3,000 delegates were tasked with coming up with international solutions to curb the destructive and often illegal trade in wildlife and timber products. According to environmentalists, the illegal animal trade is a particularly lucrative business, generating up to $23 billion (20.5 billion euros) globally each year. Only drugs and human trafficking bring in more profit.
Trade ban on ivory and horn
Poaching has decimated elephant populations in Africa. In 1980, there were 1.2 million of the animals around the world. Today, only around 415,000 exist in the wild. In the African savanna, their population has shrunk by a third in recent years. Every 15 minutes, an African elephant is killed illegally for its tusks - that amounts to 27,000 elephants in a year.
A coalition of 29 African countries - led by Kenya and Benin - had pushed for all African elephants to be included in the highest category of CITES protection. But that bid was rejected after a heated debate and strong objections from southern African countries.
Delegates at the conference called for domestic ivory markets to be shut down, and gave states guidelines for how to effectively tackle the trade - for example, through improved law enforcement.
"The conference has ended with the best possible result for the elephants," Arnulf Köhncke from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said. "It's now up to the states to implement the decisions. If they succeed, it would be a really important step in the fight against poaching."
Kenya is hoping to shut down the ivory trade by burning elephant tusks and rhino horns confiscated by poachers
The delegates also reaffirmed a trade ban on rhino horns, despite a proposal from the tiny African kingdom of Swaziland that it be permitted to sell the horns. "We are relieved that the international community has maintained the trade ban," said Daniela Freyer from the Germany-based environmental protection organization Pro Wildlife.
"Poaching for the trade, [to feed a demand for] status symbols and miracle cures, is threatening the last rhinos. They only have a chance of surviving if there's a permanent trade ban," she added.
According to Pro Wildlife, 6,000 rhinos have been poached in Africa since 2008. Most of them are white rhinos - of which there are around 20,000 individuals left. Additionally, poaching has been on the rise in recent years, peaking in 2015 with a record 1,300 rhinos slaughtered. And with black market prices reaching $60,000 per kilogram, rhino horn is now worth more than gold.
Pangolins and sharks
Another important step for the protection of species was the decision to implement a comprehensive trade ban on pangolins in Africa and Asia.
"Pangolins are the most trafficked animal in the world," Köhncke explains. "They could become extinct before most people even learn what they are."
Despite current trade restrictions on the species, an estimated million pangolins were poached and traded illegally worldwide over the past 10 years.
Domestic Asian pangolin species have been so severely depleted that smugglers have turned to Africa. The shy creatures are in high demand in China and Vietnam, where their meat is considered a delicacy, and their scales used as an ingredient in traditional medicine.
There was also good news from Johannesburg for ocean-dwelling sharks and rays. Delegates called for more rigorous protection of 13 species of devil rays, as well as the silky shark and thresher shark. Sharks are hunted for their meat, skin, liver oil and fins.
Smuggling ban for parrots and reptiles
A huge problem threatening the survival of many species is the global boom in the trafficking of wild animals. Although they may often be under protection in their country of origin, they still run the risk of being sold freely outside state borders on the internet or at animal markets.
"Collectors in Europe are willing to pay between 5,000 and 10,000 euros per animal for some species," says Sandra Altherr from Pro Wildlife.
The CITES conference led to a commitment to protect 55 species of reptiles, which are often sold as pets. "Never before have so many types of reptiles that end up in Europe's illegal pet trade been placed under protection," Altherr said.
Environmental groups also welcomed a decision to prohibit the trading of wild African grey parrots - sought after as pets because of their ability to mimic speech - as well as new restrictions on the international sale of lion products.
The trade in lion bone has spiked dramatically in recent years. In Asia it is used in traditional medicines, and often serves as a substitute for the bones of tigers, which are much rarer.
The CITES decision means that the bones, claws and teeth of wild lions can no longer be sold.