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Environment

CITES conference: Future of wildlife at stake

The future of world's most threatened wild species will be discussed at the wildlife conference in South Africa. DW takes a look at the key facts around this international meeting on wildlife trade and trafficking.

Wildlife experts from around the world will be carefully listening to what is said at the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP17). This takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, from September 24 to October 5, 2016.

Decisions made at the wildlife trade meeting can be decisive for the fate of some of the world's most endangered wild species, such as rhinos, elephants and pangolins. Numerous nongovernmental organizations will work to draw attention to recent dramatic declines of wildlife populations that are due mainly to poaching and trafficking.

DW presents key facts and discussions.

Burning rhino horns (Picture: Reuters/T. Mukoya)

Ivory trade is among the most controversial topics to be tackled by wildlife experts

Endangered species in limbo

CITES was born in 1975 as a protection mechanism for wild animals and plants against over-exploitation for commercial purposes.

The treaty has been signed by 182 countries as well as by the European Union - only North Korea, Haiti, Western Sahara (disputed territory), South Sudan, Turkmenistan and East Timor remain out of the treaty.

Species covered by CITES are listed on three appendices that differentiate their status with regard to international trade.

Appendix I includes species facing extinction and bans most trade, except for very rare cases; Appendix II allows trade of species at risk of becoming threatened, but only under strict conditions; and Appendix III addresses species considered endangered only unilaterally by one country, which seek others' support to control trade in that species.

For 10 days, the CITES CoP17 meeting will tackle 62 different proposals coming from wildlife experts around the world, concerning some 500 species. Most of these proposals seek greater protection for endangered species, demanding transfer of the species from a less-protective appendix to a more protective one.

However, some participants hope that restrictions will be loosened, and even commercial trade legalized for certain species.

Rhinos and elephants in the spotlight

With rhinoceros and elephant populations declining at rapid rates - more than 1,300 African rhinos were poached in 2015 - proposals seeking to legalize commercial ivory trade in some African countries have caused a great stir among wildlife experts and organizations.

The international trade in rhino horn has been banned under CITES since 1977, after the precarious status of all five species of rhino was recognized. However, the King of Swaziland wants CITES parties to approve international trade in horns from Swaziland's southern white rhinos, according to the Humane Society International.

Some efforts have been made to "harvest" rhino horn from living rhinos, as this allows the animal to continue living. The horm grows back, as would a human fingernail.

Among controversial proposals are the demands of Namibia and Zimbabwe to lift the ban on elephant ivory trade. The argument is that legalizing ivory trade would allow stockpiles of confiscated ivory to be sold, flooding the market with ivory, thus reducing demand and illegal poaching. Opponents say this strategy will not work to save the species.

These proposals would require support from two-thirds of CITES parties to move forward.

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Kenya: On the scent of ivory smugglers

Greater effort required

While CITES offers free access to figures on live wild animals officially confiscated in illegal trafficking and on each country's activities, a new report released by the University of Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and World Animal Protection - to be presented at CoP17 on September 27 - questions what happens to these species after they have been confiscated by CITES enforcement agencies.

Researchers warn that the fate of more than 64,000 live wild animals confiscated between 2010 and 2014 remains untraceable - meaning they might be back in poachers' hands - and that two out of three countries have not reported any live wildlife seizures. Confiscation records were completely missing for 70 percent of countries party to CITES, they said.

CITES acknowledges that not all countries act responsibly, as indicated in a report by the CITES secretariat that highlights failures on the part of Lao People's Democratic Republic to meet CITES requirements. According to Traffic - a wildlife trade monitoring network - Lao PDR is one country that has a very poor record in addressing wildlife crime.

With such controversial proposals and findings, worldwide wildlife species are probably already perking up their ears to catch every single detail from the conference in Johannesburg.

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