Early reflections on eight years as Secretary-General of CITES, 2010-2018

May 3, 2019 | Commentary

By John Scanlon – Special Envoy at African Parks Network

(First published on LinkedIn April 2018)

Perhaps due to my background as a lawyer, I always regarded CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) as a remarkable international legal agreement. A well-crafted and targeted founding text, a body of resolutions that had enabled the Convention to evolve over time, committed Parties and highly engaged stakeholders, all with a deep technical knowledge of the Convention.

When I started my tenure as Secretary-General in early 2010, CITES was, however, lacking high-level political support, as well as adequate financing, it faced many implementation challenges, yet was largely disconnected from the wider system to help meet these challenges, and many of the Secretariat’s key relationships and partnerships were frayed. That much was clear to me after I met with 15 Parties on the margins of CITES CoP15 in Doha in March 2010, just a few weeks before I was to start in my new role. They left me in no doubt as to their particular concerns.

In early 2010 we were also seeing disturbing signs of a surge in illegal wildlife trade, especially as it affected the African elephant and rhino. Time was of the essence and we immediately set about building a new momentum for CITES, including the fight against illegal wildlife trade.

The world rediscovers CITES.

Today, the world has rediscovered CITES. CITES enjoys unprecedented political support. It stands out for the depth, breadth and success of its partnerships. It is embedded in the sustainable development agenda and has led a global intergovernmental effort to raise awareness about the scale, nature and consequences of illegal wildlife trade and actions to combat it. The level of financing available to support CITES implementation is at an all-time high.

This did not happen by accident. It is the result of a collective, concerted and sustained effort, where the Secretariat played the role States created for it back in 1973.

However, to make progress the framing of the debate needed to change, and we needed to reach out for political and financial support. It did change and in profound ways. Here are some early personal, but still incomplete, observations on some of the changes we have seen over the past eight years, leaving the many personal anecdotes for another time.

Reaching out to a wider audience.

My first real opportunity to communicate collectively to Parties as CITES Secretary-General came at the 61st meeting of the CITES Standing Committee held in August, 2011 in Geneva. It was here in my opening statement – after summarizing some of CITES greatest challenges, what we had done since I took office in early 2010, and noting the guidance provided by the (then) CITES Strategic Vision 2008-2013, that I set out my aspirations for CITES, including:

We cannot just look internally to meet our implementation challenges – it will be self-defeating. We must reach out and connect to broader policy objectives and to a wider range of partners to clearly show the relevance of CITES.

It is through this outreach that we can best assist you, our Parties, access the financial resources and means that you require to effectively implement the Convention.

CITES is today more relevant than it ever was. But this is not yet reflected in the level of political support or financing for the Convention.

We must help the world rediscover the importance of CITES both in its own right and for the contribution that it makes towards the relevant Millennium Development Goals, sustainable development goals set at the World Summit for Sustainable Development, and the Aichi Targets adopted in Nagoya in 2010.

And now is the time to do it as we move towards the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012…

Given my former role was as Principal Adviser on Policy and Programme with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), there were some who proceeded with caution at the start as there had been an acrimonious relationship between CITES and UNEP for the past decade. We worked to reconcile these differences and, in late 2011, we managed to bring ten years of tense negotiations over an MoU between CITES and the Executive Director to a successful conclusion. With time, this caution subsided, as Parties gained confidence that I was “in their corner” working to support the Convention and not push other agendas, while also complying with UN rules and multiple reporting lines.

As a result, with the support of CITES Parties, its Committees and Secretariat, as well as the support of our UN, other intergovernmental and non-governmental partners, we were able to collectively achieve extraordinary political, financial and technical advances for CITES, in the context of the wider sustainable development agenda.

Recognizing the scale, nature and consequences of illegal trade in wildlife and treating it as a serious crime.

We took every opportunity to draw international attention to the real and immediate threats to wild animals and plants, as well as to people, their livelihoods and security, from the industrial scale poaching of and smuggling in wildlife, which was being driven by transnational organized criminal groups, and on some occasions by rebel militia and rogue elements of the military.

The challenge could clearly not be met by wildlife agencies alone, and my first speeches were to the INTERPOL General Assembly in November 2010, followed shortly thereafter by the World Customs Organization Enforcement Committee. It was clearly time to treat wildlife crime as a serious crime and for the full engagement of Customs, the justice system, and police, working together with rangers and local communities. In particular, we highlighted the dire plight of the African elephant, rhino, pangolin and, later on, precious timber and other species, and how this illicit trade was fueling corruption and instability.

Some sought to cast the response to this surge in illegal trade as either being enforcement led or community led, yet it is both, with the emphasis depending on the particular circumstances. The 2015 Small Arms Survey recognized that community-based initiatives to combat poaching depend on the achievement of basic levels of security. This is something I observed for myself in visiting local communities in Kenya, Malawi and South Africa, where the first priority was security for wildlife and for people.

In response to the scale and nature of the threat, we drove the creation of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), which was launched at the Global Tiger Summit in Saint Petersburg in November 2010. ICCWC is partnership between the CITES Secretariat (Chair), INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), The World Bank and the World Customs Organization (WCO), established to provide coordinated support to regions and countries to help them fight serious wildlife crime.

Through the work of UNODC, working with ICCWC, the first ever UN World Wildlife Crime Report was released in 2016 at the 5th session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Vienna and at UN Headquarters in New York, which further demonstrated the scale and nature of the illegal trade, including that it affected over 7,000 species coming from across all regions. We addressed the issue of corruption and wildlife crime directly through CITES, and with the strong support of the Executive Director of the UNODC, Yury Fedotov, through the UN Convention Against Corruption.

ICCWC is now fully operationalized and in November 2017 CITES announced additional funding of USD20 million to support ICCWC. ICCWC has now also been politically recognized through the first ever UNGA resolution on Tackling illicit trafficking in wildlife, adopted in July 2015, the follow-up resolutions adopted in 2016 and 2017, as well as resolutions of many other entities including CITES, the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice and the UN Environment Assembly.

Our relentless collective efforts to stop the surge in poaching of African elephants, which saw an estimated 100,000 African elephants poached between 2010-2012, has now yielded some successes. While we are not there yet, since reaching a high point in 2011, overall poaching rates have fallen for five consecutive years, with poaching levels in Eastern Africa now back below 2008 levels. Unfortunately, the same cannot yet be said for some other sub-regions, or some of the other species being targeted by transnational organized criminals, such as the pangolin.

Combating illegal wildlife trade as a collective responsibility.

We worked with Parties to define combating illegal wildlife trade as a collective responsibility, requiring effort across the entire illegal supply chain, from source to transit to destination, addressing both demand and supply, and engaging with local communities. Within this context, while the effort required varied, the approach moved us away from fruitless ‘finger pointing’ debates about who was to blame into a more constructive dialogue about what each Party along the illegal supply chain was able to do.

Reports of the poaching of close to 450 elephants in Bouba Ndjida National Park in northern Cameroon in February, 2012 was quite a defining moment as it graphically showed what we were up against and the need for collective action. I well remember urgently drafting a media release with staff at that time expressing grave concern over these reports, which was later echoed in the 2015 Small Arms Survey. In this media release, I observed that:

This most recent incident of poaching elephants is on a massive scale but it reflects a new trend we are detecting across many range States, where well-armed poachers with sophisticated weapons decimate elephant populations, often with impunity. The CITES programme for Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) has revealed increasing levels of poaching in 2011. This spike in elephant poaching is of grave concern not only to Cameroon, a member State to CITES, but to all 38 range States of the African elephant, as well as the Secretariat

This terrible incident served to unleash a wave of concern and action, including in Washington DC, where CITES was adopted on 3 March 1973. It helped to inspire the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in May 2012, chaired by Committee Chair Senator John Kerry, on ‘Ivory and Insecurity: The Global Implications of Poaching in Africa’. This landmark hearing, which I was privileged to give testimony before, drew high level political attention to the scale and nature of these serious crimes, the involvement of transnational organized groups, and in some cases rebel militia, and the connection between the poaching of African elephants and smuggling of their ivory with local, national and at times regional security. This hearing was followed up by an event initiated by US State Secretary Hillary Clinton on ‘Wildlife Trafficking and Conservation: A Call to Action’ also held in Washington, DC in November, 2012.

The net result is that we have seen a collective approach being taken. This was clearly on display at CITES CoP16 in 2013, which convened a Ministerial Roundtable on Combating Transnational Organized Wildlife and Forest Crime (Chair’s Summary) and adopted a suite of Decisions and Resolutions on combating wildlife crime. CoP16 marked a watershed moment for combating illegal wildlife trade. This approach was further exemplified by the CITES National Ivory Action Plans and in the outcomes of CITES CoP17.

We also issued Secretary-General’s Certificates of Commendation on 11 occasions to CITES Parties for exemplary enforcement actions.

Linking CITES to the sustainable development agenda.

CITES had always benefited from strong technical inputs and support but it was largely ‘off the political radar’. Gaining additional support, including financial support – so we could better implement the Convention, was only going to materialize if we could position ourselves in the main political debate. This did not mean losing our strong technical foundation but building upon it.

In 2010 global attention was focused on the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) CoP10. It was the CITES Secretariat that encouraged the CBD Secretariat to move away from a CBD Strategic Plan towards a more inclusive Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and at CITES CoP16 in 2013 the Convention amended its Strategic Vision to align with the Strategic Plan on Biodiversity adopted at CBD CoP10.

More importantly 2010 to 2012 was the lead up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) and the Secretariat engaged with Parties in the preparatory process. And Rio+20 is where CITES had a major breakthrough with the Convention being recognized in the outcome document ‘The Future We Want’. CITES appeared amongst the 283 paragraphs raising little controversy and going unnoticed by most commentators. Paragraph 203 reads:

We recognize the important role of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement that stands at the intersection between trade, the environment and development, promotes the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, should contribute to tangible benefits for local people, and ensures that no species entering into international trade is threatened with extinction. We recognize the economic, social and environmental impacts of illicit trafficking in wildlife, where firm and strengthened action needs to be taken on both the supply and demand sides. In this regard, we emphasize the importance of effective international cooperation among relevant multilateral environmental agreements and international organizations. We further stress the importance of basing the listing of species on agreed criteria.

This paragraph helped pave the way for CITES to feature in several subsequent UN General Assembly Resolutions, including on UN World Wildlife Day in 2013 and 2016 and on Illicit trafficking in wildlife in 2015, 2016 and 2017, and in the debate on the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with thanks to Amina J. Mohammed, (then) Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on Post-2015 Development, and Macharia Kamau (then) UN Ambassador of Kenya. CITES links to the SDGs was well recognized in the Ministerial Lekgotla, hosted by South Africa’s Minister for Environment, Dr. Edna Molewa, that preceded CITES CoP17 in Johannesburg in 2016 (Chairs Summary).

Gaining high-level political recognition for CITES.

If the outcomes of Rio+20 opened a door, the UN Group of Friends on Poaching and Illicit Wildlife Trafficking established in New York in December 2013 and co-chaired by Gabon and Germany swung it wide open. I also had the good fortune of moderating two UN General Assembly high-level side events co-chaired by the President of Gabon, H.E. Ali Bongo Ondimba and Foreign Minister of Germany, Dr. Guido Westerwelle, and Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on ‘Poaching and Illicit Wildlife Trafficking’ in 2013 and 2014.

These two events and the extraordinary work of the Friends Group led the drafting of the first ever UNGA resolution on Tackling illicit trafficking in wildlife, adopted in July 2015, with follow-up resolutions adopted in 2016 and 2017. All Resolutions referenced the outcomes of Rio+20 and recognized the central role of CITES and ICCWC (the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime) in the fight against wildlife crime.

Amongst the many other events and processes initiated to address illegal wildlife trade that we actively engaged in, the London Conference in 2014, and follow up events in Kasane, Botswana in 2015 and Hanoi, Vietnam in 2016, served to generate great political momentum, and at which CITES was recognized as the legal instrument that sets the international rules and brings the whole of the international community together on the issue, as well as supporting the leading role of ICCWC.

Throughout, we sought to align these various events with the implementation of the agenda agreed by CITES Parties, while also recognizing the scope that such ‘informal’ political events offered for countries wishing to advance ambitions that went beyond what Parties had agreed, including on issues that were contentious amongst CITES Parties, such as on domestic ivory markets, with a Resolution subsequently being adopted on the issue at CITES CoP17 in 2016.

Through the tireless efforts of CITES Parties, Illegal wildlife trade also found its way into the outcomes of meetings of the G8 in 2013 and the G7 in 2015 and 2016 and the G20 in 2017, as well as the USA/China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, giving it great added political momentum. It was also addressed in many regional and national strategies, including those developed by the African Union and the European Union.

UN World Wildlife Day.

Political recognition also came through a new day on the UN calendar, World Wildlife Day. CITES CoP16 opened in Bangkok on 3 March 2013, the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Convention in Washington DC. The Secretariat worked closely with Thailand, the host Government, on the concept, and Thailand submitted a proposal to declare 3 March as UN World Wildlife Day to the CoP. This proposal was unanimously adopted by the CoP, and later in the same year found favour with the UN General Assembly. With no additional resources, and at the request of the UNGA, the Secretariat has led the observance of UN World Wildlife Day since its inception in 2014, engaging the UN Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General and President of the UN General Assembly in the observances, and working with a wide array of partners.

The first UN World Wildlife Day was celebrated at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, with the then UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, President of the General Assembly, President of the Swiss Confederation, Ministers, Ambassadors, and the CITES Secretary-General. The main global celebration each year since then has been held at UN Headquarters in New York, with national celebrations being held across every region. The Day, led by CITES, is now recognized as the preeminent global day to celebrate wildlife.

More CITES Parties.

A test of the level of political support for a convention is its number of Parties. We put significant effort into attracting more Parties to CITES, especially in the Pacific region, and we saw the number of Parties to the Convention grow from 175 to 183, with another five in the process of joining.

CITES is nether pro nor anti trade – it’s about well-regulated trade.

The Secretariat must be fair, balanced and neutral in its approach, at all times being guided by the mandate given to it through the Convention and Resolutions and Decisions of the Parties. In this context, we communicated to our stakeholders that the Convention does not promote nor discourage trade in listed fauna and flora, rather it regulates such trade when it occurs. Parties are entitled, as importers or exporters, to choose to trade or not to trade. If Parties choose to trade in listed species, they must meet the requirements of the Convention. It is their sovereign choice, noting that any Party can adopt stricter domestic measures.

Equally, we made it clear that the Secretariat does not promote nor discourage trade in listed fauna and flora, rather it supports the full implementation of the Convention, including in assisting countries meet the strict requirements for trading in listed species under the Convention, noting that Parties have recognized the benefits that well-regulated trade can have for people and wildlife. The ongoing neutrality of the Secretariat is critical for the continuing success of the Convention.

CITES and the destruction of seized and confiscated ivory and rhino horn.

The destruction of seized and confiscated CITES Appendix I listed specimens, most notably elephant ivory and rhino horn, is one that generated strong commentary from differing perspectives. The Parties had expressed themselves on the topic by Resolution, namely that illegally traded and confiscated elephant ivory and rhino horn should be restricted to four uses only, namely, ‘bona fide scientific, educational, enforcement or identification purposes’ and, where this was not practicable, two options were provided by the Resolution, namely to save the specimens in storage or to destroy them.

As Secretary-General, I did not encourage or discourage Parties to choose one option or the other. This was a matter for each country to determine for itself. However, when a country had taken a decision to publicly destroy its confiscated stockpiles of elephant ivory or rhino horn, I was of the view that it presented a unique opportunity to draw public attention to the scale, nature and impacts of the serious crimes that lay behind these confiscations and it could act as a deterrent to illegal trade – and that is why I accepted invitations to participate in five such events between 2014 and 2016, namely in ChinaCzech RepublicHong Kong SAR, China, Kenya and Sri Lanka, and, upon request, provided a statement to many others. On each occasion, there was a massive media presence and in my view these highly covered and very visual events did serve to raise considerable political and public awareness.

CITES is an inclusive community.

We did our best to create an inclusive environment, one where all were welcome to engage with us no matter who they were, where they were from, or whatever their viewpoint was. We did so always recognizing that it is the CITES Parties who conduct their own meetings, and Parties alone who take the final decisions and direct their Secretariat, also noting that the Convention does not deal with every issue of concern that may arise through CITES debates.

As Secretary-General, I reached out to as many stakeholders as possible, with traditional stakeholders such as the hunting community, as well as the animal welfare community, both of which have a longstanding and legitimate interest in CITES, but also to a much wider array of entities all of whom have a stake in CITES. This inclusive approach was on display at the Animals and Standing Committee meetings in 2017, where we warmly welcomed the involvement of the musical instruments sector in helping address the impact of the CITES CoP17 rosewood listings on the business operations of guitar makers and other string and wind instrument industries.

Communicating directly with CITES Parties and stakeholders, including the private sector.

In order to promote the Convention, I communicated directly with Parties, organizations and different industry sectors in their country, in their offices, or by speaking at their events about what CITES is, how it is relevant to them, and how its mandate was aligned to implementing the Convention.

I am particularly grateful to the Parties that hosted country visits to about 40 Parties across all regions, and on some occasions multiple visits, where we reached out to Ministries outside of the usual CITES community and arranged briefings for industry and civil society. This included visiting China on eight occasions, with China hosting multiple CITES workshops, including on electronic permittingAsian snake trade, CITES sharks and ray listings, and demand side strategies for combating illegal trade in ivory, after which I met with Vice Premier Wang Yang, as well as speaking at the first ivory crush in Dongguan, and observing the initial closures of ivory markets and factories.

This effort also included reaching out to multiple entities, such as those focused on development, enforcement, fashion, finance, fisheriesfragrance, musical instruments, pets, tourism, timber, technology, trade, transport, watches, aquariums and zoos, amongst others, in addressing both legal and illegal trade. As was agreed at Rio+20, CITES stands at the intersection between trade the environment and development and it requires a whole of government effort, together with a wide array of partners if it is to be implemented successfully.

In this context, we put a lot of effort into engaging with the private sector on how they can join the fight against illegal wildlife trade and put legal trade onto a sustainable footing. The CITES Secretariat was a founding member of the United for Wildlife  Transport Task force, an inspired initiative of HRH the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) and chaired by Lord William Hague, which brought the transport sector together and led to the adoption of the Buckingham Palace Declaration.

We also reached out directly to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) at its Annual General Meeting in 2015, and the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) Global Sustainable Aviation Summit in the same year, on the role of the air transport sector, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) at its Global Summit in 2017 on the role of the tourism sector, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the role of technology, in regulating legal trade and combating illegal wildlife trade, as well as many other sectors.

Our depth and breadth of partners now cuts across the full spectrum of entities we need to have on board to effectively implement CITES, with wildlife trade being firmly embedded in the agendas of global law enforcement, development and financing agencies, as well as many private sector and non-governmental entities, which are now further deploying their collective capacity and expertise to implement the Convention on the frontlines of conservation, where it matters most.

CITES and livelihoods, widening the discussion, and reaching out to rural communities.

The debate on trade in wildlife and the sustainable use in wildlife has been dominated by debates over trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn and on trophy hunting. They are all important debates, but they also represent a small cross section of the 36,000-species listed under CITES.

Opportunities for the legal and sustainable use of wildlife are much wider, and we sought to expand the discussion to bring in other wildlife specimens, including the meat of the queen conch, the bulb of the snowdrop, the wool of the vicuña, the bark of the African cherry and the skin of the crocodile and python, to give the debate a wider geographic and substantive context.

This included developing a livelihoods programme, to showcase this wider array of sustainable uses of wildlife, uses that serve to benefit people and wildlife, but do not generate the same issues or highly charged debate as some others. This effort to advance livelihoods issues, led by China, Peru and South Africa, as co-Chairs of the Standing Committee’s Working Group, in turn led to the first ever Resolution on Livelihoods  being adopted at CITES CoP16 in 2013, and workshops on livelihoods were held in Peru in 2012, Colombia in 2015, and South Africa in 2016.

Well organized and highly successful CITES Conferences of the Parties (CoPs).

One of the key indicators of CITES success is its three yearly Conferences of the Parties or CoPs. CITES CoP16 and CoP17 were the two largest and amongst the most successful CITES CoPs ever. CoP16 held in Bangkok, Thailand in 2013 attracted 2,500 attendees and CoP17 held Johannesburg, South Africa in 2016 attracted 3,500 attendees.

A successful CoP has many elements, political, procedural, substantive and technical. The relationship between the Host country and the Secretariat is critical, and the intangible matter of the ‘mood in the room’ can be the difference between a good or a bad meeting. We were most fortunate to have two exceptional Host countries for CoP16 and CoP17. Both Thailand and South Africa generated fantastic goodwill amongst the Parties and created a wonderful mood for each CoP.

CoP16 saw a strong and united stand taken against illegal wildlife trade, the adoption of concrete and time bound measures to combat this illegal trade, recognition of ICCWC and declaring 3 March as World Wildlife Day, with five species of sharks and all manta rays brought under CITES trade controls, as well as over 200 new tree species, the first ever Resolutions adopted on CITES and Livelihoods and on Non-detriment findings, a renewed focus on national legislation, as well as Parties reaching an agreed interpretation of the term introduction from the sea after 40 years.

At CoP17 for the first time Parties took targeted decisions on corruption, cybercrime, traceability, the sponsored delegates projectyouth engagement, and demand reduction, as well as on national ivory action plans. Also for the first time at a CITES CoP, the voices of rural communities and youth were at the heart of the meeting. Parties amended the CITES Strategic Vision 2020 to make specific reference to the SDGs, and changed the protected status of more than 500 species, including bringing over 300 high value tree species and new sharks and rays under CITES trade controls.

The success of these two CoPs was also reflected in the largest ever Standing Committee meeting in 2017 (600 registered), largest joint science meetings in the same year (500 registered). The first ever meetings of CITES committees being held in Ireland, MexicoGeorgia and Israel also set the scene for successful CoPs, as did the excellent regional consultations held in the lead up to CoP17, which one hopes can be repeated in the lead up to CoP18 in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2019.

New marine and tree species coming under CITES.

About 600 high-value tree speciesseven new shark species, all manta rays and all devil rays were added to CITES trade controls in 2013 and 2016. This represented a major breakthrough of CITES into addressing sustainability in our forests and our oceans, with the Convention being used to regulate specimens traded in large volumes and being of high commercial value.

Implementation is a challenge for such listings, and through significant and well-funded implementation initiatives and deep partnerships with the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and UNFAO, to whom we are most grateful, as well as and others, support was able to be provided to Parties to meet these implementation challenges.

Harnessing technology for implementing CITES.

If deployed well, modern technology can and will be a game changer, whether it be drones for aerial surveillance, scanners for shipping containers, modern forensics to identify and determine the age and origin of specimens, old mobile phones for listening to the forest, or electronic permitting, never forgetting natures technology, the dog and its amazing sense of smell. We promoted the deployment of modern technology in many ways, to facilitate legal trade and combat illegal trade.

Paper permitting under CITES is open to corruption and fraud. We moved towards electronic permitting, which can help eliminate corruption and fraud, and when extended to Customs to Customs exchanges also facilitates the detection of illegal trade. We promoted eCITES to fully automate the CITES business and control processes and to promote end-to-end transparency. We championed trade traceability issues, including through the possible application of Blockchain technology. New technologies are increasingly being picked up, including for e-permitting.

Many of these technologies are still raw or in their infancy. There is much more that can be done and we encouraged further investment into new technologies, including through an Impact Investment Fund, which we also designed.

Significant new funding for CITES.

With increasing political support, opportunities arose to attract additional financing for the Convention. We made a major effort to raise significant additional funds for CITES issues, not just the Secretariat. This included drawing the attention of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Council to the threats posed to wildlife and people by unsustainable and illegal wildlife trade. Courtesy of then GEF CEO, Monique Barbut, I was given the opportunity to address the GEF Council in 2011, which to that point of time had not invested in such issues.

The GEF Council subsequently approved its first ever programme to tackle illegal wildlife trade in 2014, which has now grown to a USD131 million programme led by The World Bank and known as the Global Wildlife Programme (GWP), and which is well aligned to CITES. As a result of the decisions taken by the GEF Council in 2011, the then CBD Executive Secretary, Braulio Dias, for the first time, convened all of the biodiversity-related conventions, through the Biodiversity Liaison Group, to collectively express their priorities to the GEF Council.

As instructed by our Parties, we moved fast in working with Parties, especially African elephant range States, to establish the African Elephant Fund, which we concluded before the 61st Standing Committee in 2011, as well as securing further phases of the CITES MIKE (Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants) Programme, and the first phase of CITES MIKES (Minimizing the Illegal Killing of Elephants and other Endangered Species).

Significant funding was also generated for ICCWC, marine and timber issues, as well as for national legislation and other capacity building issues. In 2017 Switzerland announced an additional annual contribution for the Secretariat of CHF600,000 in 2018 and CHF1 million annually from then on.

We are grateful to all of our donors for their confidence in the Secretariat and the Convention, and for their wider investments in CITES-related issues. There have been many generous donors to CITES. In particular, we should acknowledge the European Union and its Commission, which has been our major donor over the past eight years, investing in capacity building, including for sharks, rays and trees, combating wildlife crime, including through ICCWC, monitoring illegal killing of elephants and other endangered species, through CITES MIKE and MIKES, national legislation and more.

Following a CITES Resolution from CoP16, The World Bank led a collaborative effort of the GWP to conduct the first ever ‘Analysis of International Funding to Tackle Illegal Wildlife Trade’, an effort that is continuing.

Building a merit based Secretariat and bringing in interns and Junior Professional Officers.

Upon taking up my role in 2010, I spoke with each staff member and we realigned the structure of the Secretariat with our core functions, which has proven to be a robust and effective structure.

We experienced a significant turnover in highly experienced staff from 2010 to 2018 primarily due to them reaching their statutory retirement age in the UN. Internal staff got some well-deserved opportunities to take on higher level posts based on merit and we recruited highly experienced and committed external applicants, people who were well-suited for the challenging work of the Secretariat. We were conscious of the need for gender and regional balance, not always easy in a small technical Secretariat, but managed to achieve a good overall balance.

We also created an internships programme, brought in our first ever junior professional officers, and extended our South Korean internship programme.

The open and inclusive approach we took to stakeholders, also applied internally, with staff being encouraged to engage with Parties and stakeholders directly and to express themselves freely in the Secretariat. As such, we had a wide diversity of views, often quite vigorously expressed by staff on contentious issues, which was very healthy and productive. In encouraging an inclusive debate, we were always striving for a fair, balanced and neutral approach, which we feel was achieved, including through our documents to CoP16 and CoP17, including our comments on proposals.

It is a highly capable and dynamic Secretariat that has been a real pleasure to lead.

CITES communicating its own message and enhancing access to information.

We upgraded our website to appeal to a wider audience, while still catering for our Management, Scientific and other authorities. In 2012, we created our own social media presence for the first time and we also engaged in writing opinion pieces on key topics and using the power of video and of film, including through two international film festivals celebrating elephants and big cats in 2016 and 2018.

All of this outreach enabled the Secretariat, as custodian of the Convention, to speak directly to Parties, stakeholders, and the wider public about what the Convention does, and does not do, as well as the work of the Parties and their Secretariat, including on controversial topics that at times generated passionate campaigns, on occasion directed at the Secretariat. It also enabled us, through the use of video messages, to be a part of a larger number of meetings and events.

Today we have very high participation rates with our social media, especially via CITES Twitter account, and also manage the website and social media for UN World Wildlife Day. Our most popular You Tube video, Rhinos Under Threat, launched at Rio+20 in 2012, has close to 100,000 views and is drawn upon for many other media pieces.

We also developed a Virtual College to provide global access to CITES materials, very actively engaged in the InforMEA (UN Information Portal on Multilateral Environmental Agreements) initiative, which is providing easy access to knowledge and information on all multilateral environment agreements, and which I was delighted to co-Chair with Elizabeth Mrema of UNEP, and with UNEP-WCMC we greatly enhanced access to trade data via the CITES Trade Data Dashboards, and the ability to search for species listed under CITES and the CMS, through Species+, and for CITES through the Checklist of CITES Species.

A few final remarks.

After serving for eight years as Secretary-General, not only has the Convention and its Secretariat been strengthened, but so has my personal passion for wildlife and the people who work every day to save it in so many ways. I have been fortunate to work with incredibly committed and talented people from across every continent and sector, and to meet inspiring people who, whether working at the highest political level, or within a government agency, for a convention, with a private company, for a non-governmental organization, within a rural community, or serving in the frontline, are all striving to achieve one common objective, the survival of the world’s wildlife.

As CITES 5th Secretary-General, and the first from Australia, I am proud to be leaving the Convention and its Secretariat in a very strong position. Thank you.

An expression of thanks.

First and foremost, my most sincere thanks to the 183 Parties to CITES, the three CITES Committees and their past and present Chairs, Øystein Størkersen, Carolina Caceres, Mathias Lörtscher, Professor Margarita África Clemente Muñoz, Carlos Ibero Solana and Adrianne Sinclair, the host countries of CoP16 and CoP17, Thailand and South Africa, the host countries of the Animals and Plants Committee meetings held outside of Geneva, Georgia, Ireland, Israel and Mexico, and the host country of all other CITES committee meetings, Switzerland, as well as to all of our generous donors. With 183 Parties, it is unfortunately not possible to refer to all of the wonderful individuals from our Parties who I worked closely with, Ministers, Vice-Ministers, Commissioners, CITES management, scientific and enforcement authorities and many more by name.

Deep thanks to all past and present staff of the CITES Secretariat for their camaraderie, wonderful advice and support, and their extremely hard work over the past eight years. It has been fantastic to work with such a committed and high-spirited team. What we have achieved the past eight years together has been through a genuine team effort.

Many thanks also to INTERPOL Secretary-General Ron Noble (retired), UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov, WCO Secretary-General Kunio Mikuriya and President of The World Bank, Robert Zoellick (retired) for their collective vision in signing off on ICCWC in 2010 and for their, and their successors (Jürgen Stock, Secretary-General of INTERPOL, and President Jim Yong Kim at The World Bank), steadfast support ever since. It is a truly remarkable interagency initiative.

Deep gratitude to the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) for his unswerving support for CITES and the fight against illegal wildlife trade, including his video message to CoP16, his pre CoP17 event, and his inspired initiative with the transport sector, which led to the adoption of the Buckingham Palace Declaration. In this context, thank you also to the Chair of the Transport Task Force, Lord William Hague, for his extraordinary support, the CEO of IATA (International Air Transport Association) Alexandre de Juniac and his predecessor Tony Tyler for their strong support for CITES in regulating legal trade and fighting illegal trade, including signing our first ever MoU in 2015, to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) for highlighting the fight against illegal wildlife trade, and to Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates, for his personal support for the fight against illegal wildlife trade.

A special thank you to Amina J. Mohammed UN Deputy Secretary-General and Ambassador Macharia Kamau for embracing CITES issues as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Helen Clark who, as former Administrator of the UN Development Programme, gave the issue her personal attention and linked CITES to the development agenda, Monique Barbut former CEO of GEF for enabling me to introduce the GEF Council to the impacts of unsustainable and illegal exploitation of wildlife, Naoko Aishi CEO of GEF for embracing the GWP and ensuring it is linked to CITES, Arancha Gonzalez Executive Director of the International Trade Centre (ITC) for helping us to advance the sustainable use aspects of the Convention and signing our first ever MoU, Roberto Azevêdo, Director General of the World Trade Organization for enabling us to finalize our joint CITES/WTO publication on ‘CITES and the WTO Enhancing Cooptation for Sustainable Development’, to our colleagues at UN Food and Agriculture Organization, especially Árni Mathiesen, Assistant Director-General, Fisheries and Aquaculture Department and his team, for their close collaboration in dealing with sharks and rays and other marine species, Gerhard Dieterle, Executive Director of the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) for the great collaboration on capacity building and concluding our first ever MoU after many years, Dr Monique Eloit, Executive Director of World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and her predecessor Dr Bernard Vallat for also concluding our first ever MoU and advancing our shared objectives, the President and the Chair of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), Gloria Guevara Manzo and Gerald Lawless, for giving me the opportunity to address their 2017 Global Summit and then follow through with the development of an industry-wide declaration on combating illegal trade in wildlife, and to Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD, for his strong support for our joint initiatives, especially the BioTrade initiative and ASYCUDA (Automated SYstem for CUstoms Data). Thank you also to ACTO (the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization), including Ambassador Alejandro A. Gordillo, Secretary-General and Permanent Secretariat of ACTO for the excellent cooperation on e-permitting, the OAS (Organization of American States) for its great support for advancing sustainable use issues, and SPREP (Pacific Regional Cooperation Organization), for its wonderful support, and especially past and present Director’s General of SPREP, David Sheppard for signing off on the first ever CITES SPREP MoU, and Kosi Latu for assisting with preparations for CoP17 and supporting CITES in the region in many ways. And a big thank you to a partner that goes right back to our very origins, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), for its ongoing collaboration and support in many different ways, and with special thanks to past and present Director’s General, Julia Marton-Lefèvre and Inger Andersen.

With thanks also to all of my colleagues and fellow executive heads of biodiversity-related conventions, both past and present, from the Biodiversity Liaison Group, as well as staff and members of the Environment Management Group, and our colleagues at UNEP-WCMC. 

Thank you to former UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon for appointing me in 2010, and Achim Steiner, then Executive Director of UNEP for putting my name forward for the post, signing the MoU with CITES in 2011, and giving his support for CITES in his new role as Administrator of UNDP, and thanks also to current UNEP Executive Director Erik Solheim and all past and current UNEP Deputies, Angela Cropper, Amina Mohammed and, in particular, Ibrahim Thiaw for their good support over the eight years, as well as colleagues across the UN, including staff of the UNDP, UNDOC, UNEP (including WCMC), UNFAO and UNCTAD.

A big thank you also to the many dedicated non-governmental organizations, coming from every region and with many different perspectives, who engage so passionately in CITES issues and who have worked with the Secretariat, the Convention and its Parties over the past eight years, of whom there are far too many to mention, although I would like to thank Iain Douglas Hamilton for his efforts in supporting the US Senate Foreign Relations hearing and for involving me, as well as Ian Craig for giving me the opportunity to gain a personal insight into the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya, as well as to so many others. Non-governmental organizations are an integral part of the fabric of CITES and give it great vibrancy and relevance.

Finally, apologies to all of the wonderful organizations and people I have not been able to thank by name in this brief message. 


Farewell messages for John Scanlon compiled by the CITES Secretariat.

A journey through John Scanlon’s eight years as CITES Secretary-General (2010-2018) through 100 photos compiled by the CITES Secretariat.

The first Secretary-General of CITES to address the following fora:

Moderator of numerous high-level events, including:

  • CITES CoP16 Ministerial Roundtable on Combating Transnational Organized Wildlife and Forest Crime, Bangkok, March 2013 (Chair’s Summary)
  • UN General Assembly side event hosted by Germany and Gabon on Poaching and Illicit Wildlife Trafficking, UN Headquarters, New York September 2013 and follow up UN General Assembly side event also hosted by Germany and Gabon on Poaching and Illicit Wildlife Trafficking, UN Headquarters, New York September 2014
  • UN World Wildlife Day informal UN General Assembly session, UN Headquarters New York, March 2016 and UN World Wildlife Day high level event, UN Headquarters, New York, March 2018

Speaker at the high-level events on the destruction of elephant ivory or rhino horn, by invitation of the host country:

With Fiji Prime Minister, Prime Minister Bainimarama, spoke at the repatriation of tabua from New Zealand to Fiji, May 2017.

Author and co-author of numerous opeds on topical CITES-related issues, including:

Created CITES social media presence in 2012:

All speeches and articles by John E. Scanlon as CITES Secretary-General 2010-2018 available here.

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