Coronavirus: Is CITES still relevant?

Apr 28, 2020 | Commentary

By Dr Adam Cruise – University of Stellenbosch

The current COVID-19 outbreak is the latest and particularly devastating example of hundreds of viruses jumping from animals to humans. About 75% of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, accounting for billions of illnesses and millions of deaths annually across the globe. When these diseases spill over to humans, the origin is almost always anthropogenic (caused by human action). This includes the destruction of natural habitat, climate change, intensive livestock farming and, of course, the international wildlife trade.

The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is the UN-sanctioned global organization tasked with regulating this trade, ostensibly to safeguard the survival of endangered wild species from over-exploitation. Tacitly, there is a caveat added to this task: in ensuring the survival of wildlife through trade, human livelihoods and economic well-being are also ensured.

Although it regards itself as the largest conservation organisation in the world, CITES is, as the name suggests, not a conservation organisation per se but a trade organisation in that it encourages the sustainable commercial utilisation of species as a means to preserve them for continued commercial utilisation. Only when a species is deemed threatened with extinction, does CITES ban all commercial international trade in that species. Of the 37,000 species it regulates, only around 670 wild animals are afforded such protection, the rest are traded.

However, given that the latest pandemic has brought the perils of wildlife trade, slaughter and consumption in sharp relief, this poses an existential question for CITES: Is it still relevant?

Thousands of CITES-listed species are traded for human consumption in markets throughout the world. Some of these species are already the cause of the most dangerous of viruses, and there may be many more in the future. As some examples of many, we know that a virus transmitted from bats through civets was the most likely cause of the SARS pandemic in 2002/3. The Ebola virus came from the consumption of primates and antelopes in Africa and HIV from primates, also from Africa.

The responsibility for the prevention of any further outbreaks, therefore, ought be CITES as the body that regulates this potentially harmful trade. Yet, in a media release on the 27th March, the CITES Secretariat absolved itself from any such responsibility, stating: “Matters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate, and therefore the CITES Secretariat does not have the competence to make comments regarding the recent news on the possible links between human consumption of wild animals and COVID-19.”

The Secretariat’s justification for absolving itself arises from the fact that the possible origin of the crisis came from the consumption of pangolins that, in turn, picked up the virus from bats. Pangolins, the Secretariat have argued, are one of the species not permitted by CITES for commercial trade. The implication is that it’s the illegal trafficking of pangolins, not a CITES-permitted legal one, that is the cause the coronavirus.

There are three problems with this line of argument:

Firstly, the illegal trade is as much CITES’s responsibility as a legal one. Within CITES’s mandate is the prevention and law enforcement measures to stop the illegal trafficking of wildlife. In this they have wholeheartedly failed – partly because of the limitations of CITES mechanisms and funding, and partly because legal trade generally fuels an illegal one (as is the case of pangolins, which are still the most trafficked animals in the world despite a CITES ban on commercial trade in 2017). In the 45 years since its inception, wild animal populations have been reduced by 60% and many species have gone or are on the brink of extinction. CITES, therefore, can hardly claim bragging rights as a successful conservation organisation. What’s more, during their watch, both the legal trade and illegal trafficking in wildlife have exploded into multi-billion dollar enterprises that have threatened the biodiversity of the world’s natural spaces.

The second problem is that zoonotic viruses make no distinction between a so-called regulated trade and an illegal one. While CITES may claim pangolins should not be traded in the first place, other diseases such as SARS, MERS, bird and swine flu and mad cow diseases, all arose from the legal rearing and consumption of animals from chickens and cows to civets and ostriches. As long as humans consume animals, legally or illegally, who knows where the next dreaded pandemic may arise from? For example, CITES endorses South Africa’s considerable lion bone export to South East Asia where traders grind down the bones to make ‘tiger wine’. The squalid conditions in which lions are reared, slaughtered, exported, distributed and manufactured suggest that this is a potential zoonotic powder keg waiting to explode.

Thirdly, while CITES maintains that the lucrative trade in wildlife is necessary for the livelihoods of impoverished communities globally, the effects of COVID-19 have essentially flipped that mantra on its head. Far from providing vital income to impoverished communities (which is questionable in any case), zoonoses from the trade in wildlife are set cause an economic catastrophe at levels not seen since the Great Depression. This aside from the fact that hundreds of thousands of lives are now at risk.

In response to the Secretariat’s press release, Swiss NGO, Fondation Franz Weber (FFW), wrote to the Secretariat maintaining that now was not the time to ignore the crisis, but to face up to its responsibility as the global organisation tasked with handling the wildlife trade. FFW stated that:

“CITES has a major role to play in the current crisis and in combatting future zoonotic diseases. Responsible leadership and a clear message from its Secretariat are urgently needed: a message that trade in wildlife is linked to these epidemics, and that the protection of these species must and will become a priority if we want to avoid future disasters” 

To date, the Secretariat has failed to respond.

Former CITES Secretary General, John Scanlon, believes more needs to be done. He recently wrote that: “Major reforms are needed to put into place an open, transparent international legal framework to enable the banning of high-risk wildlife trade, wet markets and consumption, and the strict regulation of lower risk activities, based upon agreed public health criteria.” These reforms, he stated, can only be achieved through amending CITES or by creating a new global agreement.

In other words, either CITES takes a good hard look at itself and radically alters its mandate, or an entirely new UN organisation needs to be set up, one that looks at the trade in wildlife as a global threat to human, wildlife and biodiversity health.

Ultimately, if all life on this planet is to be preserved, including our own, wildlife consumptive trade – in all its forms – ought to be stopped. The only extinction permitted should be CITES in its current attitude and form.

Adam Cruise has a PhD from Stellenbosch University in philosophy specialising in an animal and environmental ethics. He is an award-winning investigative journalist and author

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