Tag Archives: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)

7 Frozen Embryos and the Resuscitation of Rhinos

SUDAN, the last male northern white rhinoceros on Earth, died in March 2018. He is survived by two females, Najin and her daughter Fatu, who live in a conservancy in Kenya. This pair are thus the only remaining members of the world’s most endangered subspecies of mammal. But all might not yet be lost. Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, in Berlin, in collaboration with Avantea, a biotechnology company in Cremona, Italy, is proposing heroic measures to keep the subspecies alive. In a paper published in Nature, he and his colleagues say that they have created, by in vitro fertilisation (IVF), apparently viable hybrid embryos of northern white rhinos and their cousins from the south. This, they hope, will pave the way for the creation of pure northern-white embryos.

Though stored sperm from Sudan and several other males are available, both Najin and Fatu now seem unable to conceive. This means, if the subspecies is to be preserved, that one or both of them will have to have some eggs removed from their ovaries and combined with stored sperm in a Petri dish;… and subsenquently implanted in the uterus of a southern white, who would act as a surrogate mother, with a reasonable hope of success.  That has not yet happened. The seven embryos are now in a freezer awaiting the results of research on how best to transfer them to surrogates. In the meantime, having proved their technique with these hybrids, Dr Hildebrandt and his colleagues now hope to create more embryos, this time using eggs from the two remaining female northern whites.

Even if they succeed, though, it will be a long haul back for the northern white rhino. Members of any new generation resulting from IVF will have then to be bred with each other to create subsequent generations—with all the risks of reduced biological fitness which such incest entails. It is not so much a gene pool that Dr Hildebrandt is working with as a gene puddle.

Then there is the question of what to do with the resulting animals. Analysis of other rhinoceros species, both in Africa and Asia, points to a viable population in the wild needing to be at least 500 strong. Even if such a group could be created, and not collapse from lack of genetic diversity, releasing it into the tender mercies of what remains of Kenya’s savannah would be risky.

Excerpts from Animal Conservation: Drinking in the last-chance saloon, Economist, July 7, 2018, at 66.

The Most Trafficked Animal in the World: pangolin

Pangolin defending itself against lions. image from wikipedia

Pangolins are a smuggler’s dream. For defence, and when asleep, they roll themselves up into spheres, scales on the outside, to thwart any predator. That makes them easy to handle and pack. And handled and packed they have been, in enormous numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a worldwide wildlife-preservation organisation, reckons that more than 1m pangolins were traded illegally from their African and Asian homelands over the decade to 2014. That may be a conservative estimate. A paper published in 2017 in Conservation Letters calculates the number of pangolins hunted in central Africa alone as between 400,000 and 2.7m a year. Based on statistics such as these it seems likely that pangolins, of which there are eight species, four African and four Asian, are the most trafficked type of animal in the world.

Some are consumed locally. That is not necessarily illegal, for laws vary from place to place. International trade, though, is a different matter. Early in 2017 CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, listed all eight pangolins as part of what is known as Appendix 1. This means signatories to the convention (which most countries are) cannot permit them to be imported or exported.

Most of those that are, nevertheless, exported illegally from their homelands end up in China and Vietnam. In these countries pangolins’ meat is a treat and their scales are used in folk medicine, even though those scales are made of keratin, the same substance as hair and fingernails, and thus have no medicinal value. Pangolin scales fetch as much as $750 a kilogram in China. A 12-tonne stash of them, the world’s biggest seizure, was found last summer by the authorities in Shenzhen….

Cracking down on poachers and traders is difficult, particularly in poor places…Part of the blame lies with ignorance. Awareness of pangolins is patchy. They are nocturnal and shy, and thus rarely feature on tourists’ tick-lists. That makes them a low priority, even to game-management authorities who know they are there. …The Hywood Foundation’s initiative is part of a larger effort in Uganda, sponsored by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the government’s conservation agency. Now that pangolins are on the UWA’s radar, it has stepped up intelligence and investigative work on poachers and traffickers…At the consumption end of the trafficking routes, too, things are starting to happen…. In theory, eating pangolin meat (along with that of many other wild species) is already illegal in China—not for conservation reasons, but as a reaction to the outbreak of SARS, a fatal respiratory disease…Persuading people to stop using the animals’ scales may be harder.

Excerpts from  Conserving Pagolins: A Problem of Scale, Economist, Feb 3, 2018

The Mad Killing Spree: Rhinos in South Africa 2017

white rhinos image from wikipedia

According to news reports,  there appeared to be no letting up in the “relentless rhino poaching onslaught” in South Africa… The country…was on track to lose more than a thousand rhinos for the fifth straight year.
Unofficial kill figures show the country has lost 483 rhinos to poachers in the first five and a half months of 2017.

Excerpts from Poachers kill six rhino in one night in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, DefenceWeb, July 5, 2017

Drugs, Snakes and Skins: illegal wildlife trafficking

how-to-have-a-python-leather-handbag

One of the most serious environmental crimes, wildlife trafficking encompasses all stages in the supply chain, from taking wild fauna from its habitat, to trading, importing, exporting, processing, possessing, obtaining and consuming of these species.  Driven by an extraordinary low-risk/high-profit ratio, the trafficking of endangered species is estimated to generate over EUR 4.4 billion in profits globally per year (2011).

Because the global demand for such commodities is high, whether as luxury items or for use in traditional medicine, this illicit trade attracts transnational organised crime networks.

While in its character and its scale this trade resembles other types of global criminal activities, such as trafficking in drugs, human beings, firearms and counterfeit goods, it benefits nonetheless from lower levels of awareness, lower risks of detection and lower sanction levels.
The EU is a major transit point for the illegal trade in wildlife, in particular between Africa and Asia. In 2013, 1468 seizures (more than half with an international dimension) were reported by 15 EU countries. The main types of commodities seized were medicines (derived from both plants and animals), ivory, corals and live reptiles. The European fashion industry accounts for 96% of the trade in python skins…

In 2015 Europol supported Operation COBRA III, the largest-ever coordinated international law-enforcement operation targeting the illegal trade in endangered species. The operation recovered a huge amount of wildlife contraband, including over 12 tonnes of elephant ivory and at least 119 rhino horns.

Excerpt from ILLICIT TRAFFICKING IN ENDANGERED ANIMAL SPECIES, Europol Press Release, Nov. 2016

Lion Bones and Fishhook Cactus: CITES at 2016

fishhookn cactus. image from wikipedia

The triennial  summit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) closed on October 4, 2016 ….

The Johannesburg conference was marked by agreement on measures to improve sustainable trade in a number of species, including the queen conch, humphead wrasse, sharks, snakes and African wild dog as well as a large range of timber species, such as bubinga and rosewoods, and the African cherry and agarwood.

Parties also recognized several conservation success stories, including that of the Cape mountain zebra, several species of crocodiles and the wood bison, which were all by consensus downlisted from Appendix I under CITES to Appendix II in recognition of their improved conservation status.

There was fresh impetus to further safeguard threatened wild animals and plants with added protection for the African grey parrot, Barbary Macaque, Blaine’s fishhook cactus, elephant, pangolin and saiga antelope; and well-targeted enforcement measures agreed to combat illegal trade for specific species. These included the African grey parrot, African lion, cheetah, helmeted hornbill, pangolin, rhino and totoaba.

CoP17 saw a number of firsts, including, the first ever:

Resolution on corruption and wildlife crime;
Decisions on cybercrime and wildlife crime;
Resolution on strategies to reduce the demand for illegally traded wildlife,
Resolutions affecting the helmeted hornbill and snakes;
Decisions on targeting the illegal fishing of and trade in totoaba, and the related illegal killing of the vaquita;

Some other notable outcomes include:

The rejection of a Decision-Making Mechanism (DMM) for a future trade in ivory;
An agreement to close domestic markets in ivory where they contribute to poaching or illegal trade;
The rejection of all proposals to change the protection of Southern African elephant populations;
Stricter monitoring and regulation of hunting trophies to bring them under trade control measures, including recommending conservation benefits and incentives for people to conserve wildlife;
A decision to conduct a study to improve knowledge on regulation of trade in the European eel, and to look more broadly at all Anguilla eels;
An agreement to undertake specific work on marine turtles to understand the impact of international trade on their conservation status;
The introduction of a captive breeding compliance process to check the authenticity of specimens described as captive bred;
Acceptance of the National Ivory Action Plans as a tool for those Parties mostly affected by illegal trade in ivory, including source, transit and destination countries, to build their capacity in addressing illegal trade and ensuring compliance with the commitments they make under the plans;
A decision to undertake studies in legal and illegal trade in lion bones and other parts and derivatives;
A request to review all species listed on Appendix I to identify what measures are needed to improve their conservation status;
Improvements to processes to ensure that wildlife trade is sustainable, legal and traceable; and
Agreements on process to improve traceability and identification of CITES-listed species.

Excerpts from PRESS RELEASE, Largest ever World Wildlife Conference hailed as a ‘game changer, CITES, Oct. 4, 2016

 

Exotic Pets and other Illegal Markets

Animal Markets. Caged Nycticebus. image from wikipedia

It’s easy to catch grey parrots, say researchers from Birdlife, a global grouping of conservation groups. A team of hunters will use decoys or go to the birds’ water and mineral licks in the forests where flocks gather. They then throw nets over them and take dozens at a time.

Once caught they will be smuggled over borders, stuffed in tiny cages and flown illegally to Europe, South Africa, the Middle East and China, where they may fetch up to £1,000 each. All this makes the African grey probably the most highly traded bird in the world, causing their numbers to plummet… Some conservationists estimate only 1% of their historical numbers remain…

“Africa’s overall elephant population has seen the worst declines in 25 years, mainly due to poaching over the past 10 years,” the IUCN’s director-general, Inger Andersen, will say. “Their plight is truly alarming. Poaching has been the main driver of the decline, while habitat loss poses an increasingly serious, long-term threat to the species.”..

Laos has pledged to phase out its controversial tiger farms, which supply neighbouring China with bones and other parts for traditional medicine. But international animal trade inspectors will report in Johannesburg that rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and many other wildlife specimens are being regularly smuggled through the country both to China and other south-east Asian countries. “Laos is being targeted by organised crime groups as a transit point,” says wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.

South Africa.. has lost nearly 6,000 rhinos to poachers since 2007, including more than 700 this year. Vietnam needs to crack down on its rampant illegal rhino horn trade and China has been identified as the world’s primary destination for precious woods…..The street value of ivory is now more than £1,500 a kilogram in Beijing, and rhino horn can sell for £50,000 per kilo – far more than the price of gold or platinum – on the Chinese black market. Meanwhile rosewood can sell for many thousands of pounds a cubic metre.

Excerpt from The grey parrot and the race against Africa’s wildlife extinction, Guardian, Sept. 24, 2016

Depleting Rosewood Qing-dynasty Style

Ming Dynasty Wardrobe or Dead Rosewood Tree. image from wikipedia

On May 13th, 2016 hoping to save his country’s dwindling forests, Thongloun Sisoulith, the new prime minister of Laos, banned all timber exports. A government representative says environmental protection is among its top priorities. But a report to be published on June 24th, 2016  by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an NGO, suggests the clampdown will not be implemented by local officials—and even if it is, may come too late to save Siamese rosewood from being eradicated in Laos and Cambodia.

Much like the trade in rhino horn and tiger skins, trade in rosewood is driven by demand from China’s burgeoning middle classes for goods once reserved for the rich: in this case, hongmu, or “redwood”, furniture made in the ornate Qing-dynasty style. Siamese rosewood is among the most highly prized of the 33 types of tree used to make hongmu.

Five years ago Thailand had roughly 90,000 Siamese rosewood trees—more than anywhere else in the world. But the EIA says “significant volumes, if not most” of those trees were illegally chopped down before trade in Siamese rosewood became regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a treaty.

That grim history seems to be repeating itself in Laos and Cambodia. Between June 2013 and December 2014 Vietnam and China (including Hong Kong) imported more than 76,000 cubic metres of Siamese rosewood—more than the total amount growing in Thailand in 2011. Jago Wadley of the EIA says that Vietnam is a conduit through which the wood enters China. Of the total amount imported, 83% came from Laos and 16% from Cambodia.

Documentation accompanying the imported wood showed that 85% was harvested in the wild. Corrupt local officials have failed to enforce the restrictions imposed by the central Lao and Cambodian governments. Middlemen pay villagers to cut down the trees; they then sell the timber to Chinese or Vietnamese businessmen.

Excerpts Endangered species: No rosewood of such virtue, Economist, June 25, 2016