Guest Article #17

CITES CoP16, Bangkok 2013: A ‘Watershed Moment' for Combating Wildlife Crime

The 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP16) held in Bangkok, Thailand, from 3-14 March 2013, took decisive action to tackle the disturbing spike in the illegal killing of the African elephant and rhino and smuggling of their ivory and horn, which is the focus of this article.

Parties also took significant decisions on other species being pressured by illegal trade, such as Asian big cats, great apes, pangolins, freshwater turtles and tortoises, certain timer species and the Tibetan antelope, as well as deciding to request a study of the legal and illegal trade in wild cheetahs, and to assess the impact of this trade on the species' conservation in the wild.

Expert advice on the crisis confronting elephants and rhinos

Advice provided to the 178 States-Parties to the Convention by the CITES Monitoring the Illegal Killing in Elephants (MIKE) programme and the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) - managed for CITES by the non-governmental organization TRAFFFIC - showed that an estimated 17,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2011 at African MIKE monitoring sites alone – a figure likely to be over 25,000 continent-wide.[1] Analysis of the ETIS data showed that global illicit trade in ivory was at its highest level in 16 years with a sharp upward trend of large seizures of hundreds of kilos at a time - an indicator suggesting that organized crime is involved.[2] For African rhino, information collated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC) African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC for the Secretariat[3] showed that there were almost 2,000 rhinos reported as poached in 11 of the 12 African range States between 2006 and 2012, with the illegal killing of rhinos in South Africa alone rising from 13 animals in 2007 to 668 in 2012.

Organized criminals are behind serious wildlife crime

These and other reports reveal that the world is confronting a complex and increasingly difficult situation with the mass poaching of elephants[4] and rhinos to feed lucrative black markets with their ivory and horns. These crimes involve organized crime groups, rebel militia groups, and on some rare occasions, rogue elements of regular military forces as well. Wildlife rangers serving in the front-lines are up against well-resourced criminal elements and they are often quite literally being outgunned. These brave men and women are increasingly being injured or killed in the line of duty and they require the real-time support of the police and in some instances the military. Enforcement authorities are up against dangerous and ruthless opponents and a response that is commensurate with the risk is required.

International meetings call for action on illegal wildlife trade

Concern over the illicit trade in wildlife was expressed at the highest political level in the outcomes of a number of international and national events leading up to CoP16. The outcome document from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20), The Future We Want, included in paragraph 203, “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.”[5]

Similar sentiments were reflected in, for example, the 2011 recommendation of the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice on the need for preventive and judicial responses to illicit trafficking in endangered species of wild fauna and flora (since adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC),[6] the declaration of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders adopted in 2012,[7] as well as the 2012 US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on ‘Ivory and Insecurity: The Global Implications of Poaching in Africa'[8] and US Secretary of State, Clinton's ‘Call for Action' on illegal wildlife trade.[9]

These initiatives, amongst others, recognize that wildlife crime has become a serious threat to the security, political stability, economy, natural resources and cultural heritage of many countries, and that the extent of the response required is beyond the sole remit of environment or wildlife law enforcement agencies, or of one country or region alone.

CoP16 takes a strong stand against the poaching and smuggling of wildlife

In light of these disturbing trends, Parties at CoP16 placed significant emphasis on enforcement matters both through their formal agenda,[10] as well as many side events, recognizing the leading role played by CITES in taking global regulatory measures to ensure legal wildlife trade and to address wildlife crime. The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC),[11] comprising CITES, INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the World Bank, was actively involved at CoP16 and was recognized as the world's leading intergovernmental initiative in the fight against wildlife crime.

With regard to enforcement, CoP16 addressed a wide-range of issues, including: ensuring high-level political engagement; enhancing international cooperation; coordinating enforcement support at global, regional and national levels; deploying a wider-range of operational techniques and enhancing enforcement effectiveness; enacting CITES-implementing legislation; attracting further financing, and reducing demand for illicit goods.

At CoP16, we witnessed unprecedented levels of international cooperation in addressing the threats posed to wildlife, to people and to livelihoods through poaching and smuggling, especially with respect to elephants and rhinos. All Parties showed that they were prepared to put aside differences in the interest of the species and they spoke with one voice on the need to take decisive action in stopping these alarming trends.

The way forward in the fight against wildlife crime

Concrete and time-bound measures were discussed at length at CoP16 and incorporated in a suite of CoP decisions to be implemented between now and 2016.

These decisions and resolutions, which were taken by consensus demonstrate a clear recognition by CITES Parties that if we are going to seriously combat these crimes we need to: treat such crimes as serious crimes; coordinate enforcement efforts at global, regional and national levels; work across source, transit and destination States; make better use of forensics and the sharing of forensic evidence, in particular for large-scale seizures; take more aggressive enforcement action utilizing the sorts of techniques used to combat illicit trade in narcotics and other serious crimes - such as intelligence driven operations, risk profiling, controlled deliveries,[12] covert operations, and the use of anti-money laundering and asset forfeiture legislation; to move beyond seizures by ensuring follow-up investigations and prosecutions, especially targeted at the ‘king pins' behind organized criminal syndicates; and to, upon request, support countries in the immediate aftermath of serious incidents.[13]

The CITES Secretary-General was also asked to cooperate with UNODC regarding the national security implications for certain countries in Africa of this illegal killing and trade.[14]

Reaching out to all stakeholders

On the political level, ICCWC hosted a side event at CoP16 that brought together Ministers and other high-level representatives to discuss transboundary wildlife crime, with a special focus on elephants and rhinoceros.[15] The discussions acknowledged that wildlife crime is a serious crime that generates significant profits for criminal groups – it demands a response equivalent to that afforded to other transnational organized crimes such as the trafficking of narcotics, humans or arms. There was recognition of the need to ensure the highest level political buy-in to underpin enhanced operational efforts and to engage across ministries responsible for foreign affairs, police, customs, the justice system and on some occasions the military (as well as other relevant organizations, as appropriate) in combating these crimes, to ensure a well-coordinated multi-disciplinary enforcement response.[16] In another ICCWC event, the regional wildlife enforcement networks from around the world were brought together for the first time, recognizing the need for enhanced intra- and inter-regional cooperation.[17] The Asian Development Bank also hosted an event for senior judges, Attorneys General, prosecutors, senior customs officials, police and many others to discuss wildlife crime, where cutting-edge training in investigation techniques was delivered by ICCWC partners to wildlife law enforcement officials from across Asia, equipping them with specialized knowledge they can apply in their battle to halt transnational organized wildlife and forest crime.[18]

Measures to suppress demand for illicitly traded goods

In addition to addressing enforcement, there was a clear recognition by CITES Parties that we need to reduce demand for illegal and untraceable products and to enhance overall public awareness of the severe damage caused by unregulated and illegal trade. As Parties go hard on enforcement, measures targeted at the criminals involved in illicit trade across source, transit and range States, they are also looking at measures to suppress demand for illicitly traded wildlife. In this regard, it was pleasing to see the recent initiative of the World Tourism Organization and the UNODC calling on tourists to help reduce demand for illicit goods and services linked to transnational organized crime.[19]

Focusing on the entire illegal enforcement supply chain

The CITES Standing Committee (a subsidiary policy and compliance body) further reinforced these efforts by agreeing with the eight key States in Africa and Asia that are part of the illegal ivory supply chain (being range, transit and destination States) on the preparation of national action plans containing details of the activities those States will undertake within specific timeframes to combat illegal trade in ivory. These plans will be continuously reviewed by the Standing Committee, which can take a wide range of measures to achieve compliance.[20]

Attracting further financing in support of the fight against wildlife crime

The outcomes of CoP16 reflect the commitment that all countries have made to end the poaching of the African elephant and rhino and the smuggling in their ivory and horn. There are resourcing constraints and the Ministerial Roundtable identified the need to urgently attract additional donors and resources in support of national and international efforts.[21] In this context, it was most encouraging to see a decision taken on the need to further support the African Elephant Fund[22] and to find many funding agencies participating at a CITES CoP for the first time, most notably the Asian and African Development Banks, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the UNDP. The World Bank also participated, including through its Global Tiger Initiative, which showcased its business model for tackling illegal trade in tigers.

Many new species come under CITES controls

The steps agreed for strengthening enforcement efforts are important for all CITES-listed species and CoP16 decided to include many new species in the CITES Appendices, including over 200 commercially valuable timber species from across Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well five species of commercially valuable sharks, the manta ray and many tortoises and turtles, amongst others. Of particular interest was the increasing use of CITES by range States to ensure the legal, sustainable and traceable trade of timber species.[23]

A ‘watershed moment' - and 3 March takes on new significance

Overall, CoP16, which coincided with the 40th Anniversary of the signing of the Convention, will be seen as a watershed moment in the history of the Convention for many reasons, including the strategic and operational decisions taken on enforcement matters.[24] The Secretariat is now focused on engaging with Parties and many partners within and outside of the UN system in ensuring the effective implementation of these outcomes.

The CITES Standing Committee will oversee the implementation of the decisions taken at CoP16, and CITES Parties will next convene in South Africa in 2016 to critically assess and review the on-ground impacts of the measures they adopted in Bangkok in 2013.

A proposal from the Kingdom of Thailand to declare 3 March, the date on which CITES was signed, as World Wildlife Day was adopted by consensus. This will now be an annual occasion upon which to promote international and national action to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of wildlife.


[1] See: CoP16 Doc 53.1 (and addendum): http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/16/doc/E-CoP16-53-01.pdf

[2] See: CoP16 Doc 53.2.2 (Rev 1): http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/16/doc/E-CoP16-53-02-02.pdf

[3] See: CoP16 Doc 54.2 (Rev 1): http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/16/doc/E-CoP16-54-02.pdf

[4] See: The Rapid Response Assessment for a consolidated report: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/pr/2013/20130306_ivory.php

[5] IISD Guest Article #13 CITES: From Stockholm in ‘72 to Rio+20 - Back to the future: http://uncsd.iisd.org/guest-articles/cites-from-stockholm-in-%E2%80%9872-to-rio20-back-to-the-future/

[6] See: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/sundry/2012/20121212_GA_resolution.php

[7] See: CITES CoP16 Doc 29 (Rev1): http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/16/doc/E-CoP16-29.pdf. Also see: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/pr/2012/20120912_APEC_declaration.php

[8] See: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/sg/2012/20120525_SG_US-Senate_testimony.php

[9] See: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/pr/2012/20121111_wildlife_trafficking.php

[10] See: CoP16 Agenda: http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/16/doc/index.php

[11] See: http://www.cites.org/eng/prog/iccwc.php

[12] See for example: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/sundry/2011/20111219_cd_workshop.php

[13] With a decision to establish Wildlife Incident Support Teams (WISTs)

[14] See: CoP16 Document 53.2.1 Decision 16

[15] See: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/pr/2013/20130305_ministerial.php

[16] See Chair's Summary of Ministerial Roundtable: http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/16/inf/E-CoP16i-54.pdf

[17] See: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/pr/2013/20130307_wen.php

[18] See: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/sundry/2013/20130313_iccwc_training.php

[19] See: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/sundry/2013/20130409_UN_tourist_campaign.php

[20] See: Resolution Conf. 14.3: http://www.cites.org/eng/res/14/14-03C15.php

[21] See: Chair's Summary of Ministerial Roundtable: http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/16/inf/E-CoP16i-54.pdf

[22] See: Launch of AEF: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/pr/2011/20110819_SC61.php

[23] See for example: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/sg/2011/20111229_IYF.php

[24] See closing media release: http://www.cites.org/eng/news/pr/2013/20130314_cop16.php