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March 7, 2013

Report from COP16: End of Week One

Humane Society International

  • HSI's Mark Simmonds speaking in support of the proposal to list the African manatee on Appendix I of the convention, which was adopted by consensus. HSI

  • HSI members fly an inflatable shark, another animal for which we are lobbying to obtain hightened protection. HSI

  • A polar bear costume brings attention to the uplisting proposal. HSI

This has been a week of mixed fortunes as the CITES conference committees work painstakingly through a complex agenda that will affect the lives of millions of animals of many species.

Days and nights

The Humane Society team has made our way to meetings early each morning, sometimes by three-wheeler tuk-tuk and sometimes by foot along busy highways, dodging through the sidewalk cafes. Often, we have gotten together before or during breakfast and, in some cases, intense lobbying has gone on late into the night.

Once at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, most of us join other members of the Species Survival Network, with whom we coordinate many of our activities.

Then, as 9 a.m. approaches, the team splits into those attending Committee 1, which is looking mainly at the proposals to move species around the Appendices, and Committee 2, which is mainly considering how CITES functions.

Throughout the day and into the evening, we meet formally or informally with country delegates and provide them with advice and information to try to influence their positions in favour of those proposals that we are here to support, including the proposal to place the polar bear and African manatee on Appendix I, a record number of proposals to protect freshwater turtles and tortoises, and a number of proposals for sharks and related species.

Results so far

So, how are we doing? Well, despite the late nights and early mornings—and some high drama—we are all still standing! We have had several successes and one huge failure.

Polar bears

The proposal for the polar bear was robustly opposed by Canada, Greenland, polar bear hunters, the World Wildlife Fund and others. The European nations, at the last minute, rolled out a compromise package. Our analysis was that this compromise would do little for the polar bear, and we urged parties to support for the Appendix I listing that the U.S. proposed. With our allies—and armfuls of polar bear plushes, pins and fact sheets—we did everything that we could to promote this strong protection, but when the proposals came to the vote, both the EU compromise package and sadly then the U.S. proposal failed.

As all the decisions made in the Committees need to be verified by the plenary next week, this may not be the end for the bear... but the voting record shows it would be a major leap for it to reach Appendix I at this meeting.

African manatees

Arguably our biggest success concerns another large but far less well-known marine mammal, the African manatee (a sister species to the manatees found in the warmer waters of the U.S.). The proposal was brought to CITES by three West African countries—Senegal , Benin and Sierra Leone—and they spoke in Committee 1 with great enthusiasm and eloquence. Sierra Leone, for example, said that the manatee had swum here in their hearts to ask for help from CITES. Many other African nations and then several Latin American countries spoke up in favor of the proposal.

Fairly soon, it became clear that there was no opposition in the great meeting hall. Our group took the microphone and spoke on the behalf of ourselves and the 92 member organisations of the Species Survival Network to congratulate the African nations on their proposal and emphasize that it met the necessary legal criteria to be adopted, that it was scientifically supported and would put the African manatee on the same footing as other animals in the order of mammals known as sirenians (the two other manatee species and the closely-related dugong). We added that the range states have a long hard road ahead of them to protect this species in the face of many challenges.

The Chairman of Committee 1 then asked if the proposal could be adopted by consensus and it was. There was warm applause in the room at this.

Interestingly, the African manatee proposal was opposed by some powerful contributors here. The IUCN (World Conservation Union) assessment of it was negative—even though the world’s leading experts in these species and scientists working on them in their West African range were strongly supportive (something that we took care that the countries here in Bangkok knew). Likewise, the CITES Secretariat did not recommend the proposal.

The contrast with the polar bear proposal is of course very marked. Arguably the differences include the fact that all the ranges states supported the manatee, whereas two range nations—Canada and Greenland—fiercely opposed the poor bear.

Other species

The CITES CoP has also considered a range of other species, and a record-breaking number of freshwater turtles and tortoises and a range of gecko species were added to the Appendices on Friday. These are all successes, although the very fact that they need to be listed by CITES shows that the species are already in deep trouble, so this is a bittersweet thing.

Still to come

The meeting now pauses over the weekend (although there will be some working groups running), and on Monday morning it will resume with the very important shark and related species proposals, which we have been working hard to promote. Covering a range of species including the hammerhead, porbeagle and oceanic whitetip sharks, these proposals are likely to meet a lot of opposition from those countries that have traditionally opposed the inclusion of marine species on the CITES Appendices, namely Japan and China. Let us hope that the manatee success bodes well for next week.

There is still the possibility in the last plenary session of the CoP for any of the decisions made previously to be altered. We can be sure that there will be drama until the very end and HSI will be here to do the best that we can for the animals that we all care about.

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