Threatened Species Often Wait Years For Legal Protection
There are two main registries that list protected wildlife: the IUCN Red List, and the CITES Appendices. The IUCN Red List — maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature — is considered a scientifically authoritative list of the extinction risk of different species. Species are added to this list through a systematic, quantitative process that takes into account population decline, habitat loss, and direct harvesting (i.e., wildlife trafficking).
The second main registry, CITES, is maintained by a 1973 international agreement that now boasts 183 member countries. (CITES is the acronym for this treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.) The agreement provides a framework for preventing international trafficking of threatened species. The most powerful tool CITES possesses is to list a species on Appendix I, which restricts international trade of the species to “exceptional circumstances.” CITES can also list a species on Appendix II, which places less-strict restrictions on trade.
While a CITES listing provides threatened species some legal protection from trafficking, adding new species to Appendix I or II requires a two-thirds majority vote at a meeting of member countries. This procedure is not automatic, so many species listed by the IUCN Red List do not receive protection from CITES, and because the meeting of member countries (the “Conference of Parties”) is held only every 2-3 years, there is frequently a delay between newly threatened species being identified by scientists and receiving protection. Being listed by the IUCN Red List but not CITES can be particularly devastating because it advertises threatened species as both rare and lacking legal protection, increasing their attractiveness to traffickers.
This 2019 study assesses the extent of this problem. The authors consider 958 species that, at least in part because of international trade, were listed by the IUCN Red List between 1994 and 2013 as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered. If the scientific knowledge of the IUCN Red List was perfectly translated into the CITES framework, these species would all be added to the CITES framework during the 2013 or 2016 CITES Conference of Parties, at the latest.
Overall, 28% of these threatened species were not listed in either CITES Appendix I or II. The authors also analyzed the 958 species by the level of “harvest pressure” they suffered, as quantified by IUCN on a scale of 0 to 9. While 96% of species classified as 9 were listed in Appendix I or II, there were many unlisted Endangered and Critically Endangered species classified with scores only slightly less than 9.
The authors found that even when species are listed by both organizations, there is often a significant delay between when species are identified as threatened by the IUCN and when they are added to the CITES appendices. This delay was typically several years — but some species suffered delays of up to 20 years, or were never listed by CITES. (In some other cases, CITES listed species before the IUCN Red List, often due to CITES classifying the entire genera or family of a threatened species).
This study highlights the importance of developing mechanisms that can automatically add newly threatened species identified by scientists to CITES. But the problem of IUCN/CITES mismatch can also be mitigated by national laws that are based directly on IUCN Red List status. Because CITES depends on individual member states for enforcement, these national laws could be just as effective as changes to CITES.
For animal advocates, this study gives an example of how logistical and political challenges can complicate efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. Compounding these challenges, there are also important questions about the efficacy of legal tools for protecting threatened species, which some have argued may increase demand and move trade further underground. Answering these questions and improving national and international regulation could significantly increase the effectiveness of wildlife protection efforts.