Since signing the CITES convention to protect endangered species, much has been done for endangered animals and plants. Yet often it's hard to get all countries to agree to take action.
CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It's an agreement that can prohibit trade or limit it. In order for that to happen, the respective plant or animal species has to make it on the list of endangered species.
Currently, there are 177 states that have signed the convention, states with different traditions and interests that have to agree on what they deem to be worthy of protection. If an animal or a plant is to make it onto the CITES list, two thirds of the member states have to vote in favor. Whales, sea turtles, corals and orchids for instance are already on the list, in total some 5.000 animals and 29.000 plants are protected under the agreement.
Standing up to lobbyists
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the convention and on Sunday (03.03.2013), a 10-day conference kicks off in Bangkok, which once again will discuss overfishing of the oceans among other issues. The huge nets used for commercial fishing often catch entire schools of fish so that the species do not enough time to recover.
One example is the blue fin tuna. Studies have shown that only 10 percent of this fish's stock remains in the Mediterranean. The largest part of the fish caught there is exported to Japan and ends up as sushi.
At the 2010 CITES conference in Doha, there was a proposal to ban the trade of blue fin tuna, but it ultimately failed partly because of opposition from Japan and China. At the time, Japan undertook "massive diplomatic efforts to convince other states not to back the proposal," Gerhard Adams, expert with the German Environment Ministry, told DW.
Free, green trade
Fish and wood are, according to WWF expert Volker Homes, "the really big commercial species." Many billions of euros are being made in those industries. Homes said he has high hopes pinned on CITES as he said it is the only environmental agreement that actually can impose sanctions. CITES can ban the import of endangered species and exclude some countries from the trade with specific plants or animals. This, he said, is an important tool to put pressure on those countries.
Especially in the case of countries that - like Japan - are highly dependent on imports. Because of that dependency, Japan "is very sensitive when someone tries to tell them what to catch and how much they can import. It hits them hard," Homes told DW.
But when it comes to trade restrictions, the potential for conflict exists with more than just individual countries. Environmental protection conventions that have consequences for the economy also have to deal with the World Trade Organization (WTO), which tries to promote free trade. What's central here is the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades (GATT), a deal dating back to the 1940s which criticizes import bans - mainly to ensure that no country would be put at an economic disadvantage.
The head of the center for environment studies with the Free University Berlin, Miranda Schreurs, said there was a change in the WTO regulations in the past. The WTO has, in several cases, prioritized protecting a species above freedom of trade. "The WTO has become more 'green' but there still is plenty of room for improvement," Schreurs said.
A job well done?
Yet there's also room for improvement within CITES, according to Adams of the German Environment Ministry.
"In many countries there's a lack of know-how when it comes to sustainability, he said, adding that sometimes there's also a lack of national legislation against overexploitation or there are not enough checks to enforce a law. But in general, his view on the last 40 years is a very positive one.
It's a perspective shared by Volker Homes. He said CITES has helped protect several species from extinction. "The trade with whale meat isn't an issue anymore. CITES and the Moratorium of the International Whaling Commission have achieved that the numbers of several of the large whales have significantly recovered." The same goes for the Nile crocodile or the leopard.
Saving both fish and jobs
At the 16th CITES conference in Bangkok, the plan is to add some fish for human consumption to the list. Environmental protection groups have said such a move should not provoke a conflict.
"Without fish you won't have a fishing industry or fish on your plate," said Homes, adding that it is only logical "that you give some stocks the chance to recover so that the fish can continue to be caught which also saves jobs in the fishing industry."
Adams also said the goal was not to stop all fishing, but to make sure fish stocks are able to recover so fishing will also be possible in the future.
Tropical timber, elephants and polar bears
Also on the agenda on Bangkok will the poaching crisis in Africa, Adams said. Organized gangs, often with military equipment are pillaging the animal world - elephants and rhinoceroses are especially threatened.
"The illegal trade in ivory is by now about as profitable as the drug or human trafficking trade," he said. The United States will table a proposal in Bangkok to also ban the trade with polar bear skins, arguing that as the melting of the pole's ice caps makes survival for polar bears already more difficult, they shouldn't be hunted anymore.