Amend or adapt? Evolving the role of CITES to prevent future zoonotic pandemics

Jan 23, 2021 | Commentary

By Dr Rosalind Reeve & Dr Adam Cruise

As the world reels from the devastating effects of COVID-19, the spotlight has been shone on the dangers to human and animal health of the enormous and expanding global trade in wildlife and the potential role of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as a possible mechanism to help prevent future zoonotic pandemics.

The extent of the risk cannot be underestimated. A recent workshop report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) on ‘Escaping the Era of Pandemics’ identifies wildlife trade as a “particularly important risk factor for disease emergence”. As many as  1.7 million unknown viruses are circulating in mammals and birds alone, up to half of which could infect humans and cause the spread of zoonotic disease (an infectious disease that has jumped from animals to humans). SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 is highly transmissible, but has a relatively low mortality compared with other more deadly zoonoses such as ebola or nipah viruses, both of which originated in wildlife. A virus with high transmissability and high mortality – and by extension the wildlife trade –  presents an existential risk.

CITES, as the world’s largest wildlife conservation agreement, has a global mandate with 45 years of experience regulating international wildlife trade. With 183 signatory governments, this mandate is binding on all of its parties. CITES infrastructure, expertise and reach, therefore, are unparalleled globally, and is potentially well placed to counteract any future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.

However, CITES currently has no mechanism to include zoonotic diseases in its mandate. CITES regulates international trade in wildlife, but it only does so to prevent species from human over-exploitation. Nowhere in the text of the convention are Parties obliged to halt or restrict trade because of the potential spread of zoonoses.

Therefore, CITES needs to evolve to include the role of zoonotic diseases that manifest and spread through international trade in wildlife. Two proposals have been put forward to enable this evolution of the convention: amendment and adaptation. The former is about changing the text of the convention to include zoonoses; while the latter is about developing a protocol, or an addendum, to the existing CITES text.

Amending CITES

The End Wildlife Crime initiative (EWC) have proposed that the convention should be amended to include new language in its text. This would expand its remit to include the regulation of trade in animals presenting a risk of zoonotic disease transfer.

At first glance, this seems a logical approach since the convention explicitly allows amendments. EWC is proposing the development of a new Appendix IV listing that expands the regulated species to include specifically those considered a threat to public or animal health (CITES currently has three Appendices listing species threatened to different degrees by trade). The proposed new Appendix IV would entail listing species that pose a high risk of propagating zoonotic disease, when such species are found in international trade, and regardless of conservation status. Under this option, some species that are not currently eligible for listing on the existing Appendices would be eligible for listing on the new Appendix IV that restricts their trade.

However, as a group of CITES analysts wrote in Scientific American (Weissgold et al), “there are widespread concerns that opening the original text of CITES to change could release a flood of additional proposed amendments with language that could undermine the current interpretation, implementation, enforcement and effectiveness of CITES.”

For an amendment to be adopted, two-thirds of the Parties present and voting at the triennial Conference of the Parties (CoP) must approve it. In theory, then, adoption of an amendment could be swift (the next CoP is in 2022) but entry into force might take years, even decades.

Although CITES is widely hailed as the largest conservation agreement, it struggles to achieve its original mandate: protecting species from over-exploitation through international trade. The extinction crisis is evidence alone that CITES is nowhere near living up to its potential. The trade in wildlife for luxury foods, medicinal parts and pets is now so huge that globally it represents one of the most prominent drivers of vertebrate extinction risk. There are long delays in the listing process – up to 24 years in some cases. It took four CoPs (10 years) to list mahogany trees (Swietenia macrophylla), not because of debates about the science but due to political pressures from powerful timber trade interests. The listing of commercially exploited fish and other marine species has faced similar challenges from vested interests. The Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), over-exploited for decades to supply an ‘obscenely profitable’ market in Japan, is still not listed in CITES despite being categorized as ‘critically endangered’ in the IUCN Red List. A listing proposal submitted by Sweden met with excessive political pressure at the 1992 CITES CoP in Kyoto, Japan, and was withdrawn. A second proposal by Monaco to ban commercial trade through an Appendix I listing was defeated at the 2010 CoP in a secret ballot. Commercial interests (powerful in some countries) would be able to put pressure on the amendment of the treaty, or on any effort to restrict their trade. Some poor countries and wealthy market countries would be unable or unlikely to resist such pressures.

With the vast expansion of the commercial wildlife trade since CITES was negotiated, many more species are now traded than listed, and the convention is struggling to control trade in even those. A new amendment addressing zoonotic disease would risk further diverting already insufficient attention from CITES’ historical mission. It would also focus all attention on international trade when domestic trade poses a significant zoonotic threat too (witness the growing bushmeat trade in Central Africa, Asia and Latin America, which is not only threatening species’ survival but also food security of communities as hunters increasingly privilege selling meat to urban markets over the household pot).

Furthermore, CITES already has significant issues with funding and staffing shortages. A new zoonosis mandate could compound this problem. While the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change both have a financial mechanism in the Global Environment Facility, CITES has no such intergovernmental financial mechanism. The Secretariat’s latest reports on finance and budget disclose serious budgetary concerns and resource constraints, including back dues, increasing responsibilities as more Decisions and Resolutions are adopted at each CoP, and human resource shortfalls.

More importantly, an amendment opens up the risk of other amendments being proposed. A fundamental issue frustrating CITES’ ability to rein in the international wildlife trade is a widening gulf between those promoting ‘sustainable legal wildlife trade’ to support livelihoods and those championing stronger restrictions and bans on wildlife trade to prevent extinction and ecosystem collapse. While ‘sustainable legal wildlife trade’ may seem a reasonable goal (welfare and ethical concerns aside), in practice it has proved almost impossible for CITES to achieve. The commercial wildlife trade is jeopardising not only the food security of indigenous peoples and communities that depend on wildlife for subsistence but also the ecosystems on which we all depend. Furthermore, some Parties and advocates of trade (traders, trade organizations, and some conservation groups) have claimed they support only sustainable trade, but have made concerted attempts to weaken CITES, and effectively turn it into a free trade agreement for wildlife. Opening up the convention, and accompanying Resolutions, for major amendments on zoonoses could provide an open door to other amendments that promote harmful trade, risk undermining CITES and accelerate a trade that is already unsustainable.

Adapting CITES with a Protocol

As an alternative to an amendment package, Weissgold et al have posed the possibility of an addendum or protocol to the existing text. Their approach would ensure the original CITES text remains safely shielded from damaging amendments.

Despite the absence of explicit language in the convention allowing for the adoption of protocols, international law suggests that a Zoonosis Protocol is a possible avenue to address zoonotic disease risk in a way that relies heavily on the already established mechanics of CITES. International practice, especially among United Nations organisations and in the context of human rights and diplomatic relations treaties, shows that protocols are popular mechanisms when Parties desire to forge an agreement that builds upon an underlying, existing treaty. States simply negotiate, adopt, and ratify the protocol in question, establishing an additional agreement while preserving the underlying treaty’s text. The Paris Agreement on climate change is one such example in environmental law, and the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer is another.

Weissman et al propose that a Zoonosis Protocol to CITES could be based on ‘reverse listing’—an approach whereby any wild animal cannot be traded, unless determined to be of demonstrably low zoonotic disease risk. Under a reverse-listing system all live wild animals (either from the wild or from wildlife breeding/farming facilities) or potentially infectious body parts would be presumed high-risk until it is determined and demonstrated that they are safe to trade. This precautionary approach is fully consistent with Rio Principle 15, and would prevent any wildlife trade until proven safe – at least from a zoonotic perspective. This would greatly assist CITES with its lengthy delays in listing and budget constraints, and make it more effective in regulating trade. Had CITES, with its global reach, been based on reverse listing from the outset, it would have been more effective at preventing the exponential rise in wildlife trade contributing to the extinction risk; it would also have been able to prevent species included in its Appendix II (sustainable, legal trade allowed) from qualifying for transfer to Appendix I (threatened species with no primarily commercial trade allowed), due to inadequate implementation of the treaty. Proving cases of trade threat, species-by-species, has proved far too slow to deal with the pace of trade expansion since 1975 when CITES came into force. According to calculations derived from the IPBES workshop report, only 15% of the 129 animal species identified so far as hosts of pathogens that have emerged through the wildlife trade are regulated by CITES, and commercial trade is prohibited for only 11%. That of course does not in any way include unknown or novel pathogens (such as SARS-Cov-2). With the rate at which zoonotic pandemics are predicted to increase (we can expect a COVID-like event every decade, according to the IPBES workshop chair, Dr Peter Daszak), we do not have the luxury of time to prove cases of zoonotic risk one-by-one before acting to stop the trade. Furthermore, only a reverse list to prevent pandemics of zoonotic origin would be able to prevent an outbreak or pandemic caused by another novel virus.

An analysis by the International Environmental Law Project (IELP, now Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment, GLA) points out that by maintaining the text of the convention “a Zoonosis Protocol presents an opportunity to design an instrument that addresses genuine needs while avoiding unnecessary disruption of CITES. There are no obvious legal barriers to a group of willing Parties forging a Zoonosis Protocol that would then co-exist with CITES. Compared to an amendment package, a Zoonosis Protocol may pose less risk to the existing mandate of CITES while offering equally effective treatment of zoonotic issues.”

For all its faults, as Weissgold et al concluded, “leaving CITES out of the solution means abandoning the only global system of wildlife trade regulation and enforcement in existence, and that would be a loss not easily or quickly replaced”. Changing its mandate, however, risks accelerating trade in all species, and undermining the conservation mission of the treaty. A Zoonosis Protocol based on reverse listing may take longer to negotiate than amending the convention, but with political will to enable its swift entry into force (akin to the Paris Agreement and Montreal Protocol), it would ultimately provide a more effective means of actually reducing the risk of future pandemics. Given the devastation and loss of life caused by COVID-19, surely this is an avenue worth pursuing.

Rosalind Reeve is an environmental lawyer with a PhD in biochemistry and author of Policing International Trade in Endangered Species: the CITES Treaty and Compliance.

Adam Cruise is an investigative wildlife journalist with a PhD in environmental and animal ethics from Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This license allows re-users to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator.



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