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Eleventh hour support for vaquitas at CITES meeting but urgent action still needed on tackling illegal wildlife trade globally

Geneva – WEBWIRE
La vaquita, Phocoena Sinus, el mamífero marino más amenazado del mundo. © Chris Johnson
La vaquita, Phocoena Sinus, el mamífero marino más amenazado del mundo. © Chris Johnson

The 69th meeting of the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has come to a close in Geneva having tackled the largest agenda with the largest number of participants ever.

In the final hour of the week-long session, Mexico, China and the United States made a surprise agreement to convene a high-level diplomatic mission to help stop the extinction of the vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, commonly referred to as the ‘Panda of the Sea’.

The government of Mexico raised the issue noting the severity of the crisis facing vaquitas, and was supported by the United States and China. The high-level mission will support the much needed actions to address the significant challenges faced in ending the illegal totoaba fishing and trafficking.

Leigh Henry, Director of Wildlife Policy at WWF-US, said:

“It’s been said before that it’s the eleventh hour to save the vaquita: there are fewer than thirty individuals remaining and illegal fishing of totoaba is driving this elusive porpoise to extinction.

“Coming at the close of the meeting, Mexico’s willing support for a high-level mission to assist their efforts to combat the illegal totoaba trade grants the world’s most endangered marine mammal a lifeline. Drowning in nets set for totoaba is the only known threat to vaquita in their habitat.”

WWF works with Mexico, as well as the US and China, to implement urgent measures to save the vaquita, and to secure a gillnet-free Upper Gulf of California that supports both their survival and the livelihoods of local communities.

The CITES meeting also discussed other pressing wildlife trade issues impacting some of the planet’s most endangered species.

The Committee sent a strong message to Lao PDR on a number of issues including tiger farms, Siamese rosewood, legislation and enforcement, and widespread illegal wildlife markets.

Rob Parry-Jones, WWF’s lead on wildlife crime said:

“Lao’s inadequate enforcement is facilitating widespread illegal trade in threatened species, including tiger, elephant and rhino. We appreciate the cooperative spirit that they showed in the meeting but this must be followed by action as a matter of urgency.”

Laos has to submit a detailed and time-bound plan of action by the end of the year, and a progress report by end of June 2018. Failure to submit the implementation plan or to demonstrate adequate progress could result in sanctions against the country.

Regarding pangolins, the Secretariat interpreted the provisions of the Convention to allow commercial trade in pangolin stocks acquired before the trade ban came into force in January 2017, but this view was rejected by majority vote.

Colman O Criodain, WWF’s wildlife policy manager said:

“We were surprised by the Secretariat’s interpretation. Had it stood it could have facilitated widespread unsustainable and illegal trade.”

The Committee also struggled to agree on robust recommendations on the issue of Madagascar’s ebonies, rosewoods and palisanders. Madagascar was seeking leave to sell its stockpiles of these valuable timbers, despite the fact that none of these stocks have been audited to date and that there is large-scale illegal trade. Fortunately this request was rejected.

Michel Masozera, WWF’s deputy leader for wildlife for Africa said:

“The widespread illegal logging of precious timbers from the World Heritage Site, the Rainforests of the Atsinanana, undermines livelihood and development options for Madagascar and damages the habitat of unique species such as lemurs. The international community must act to bring this scandal to an end.”

The impact of wildlife crime can be devastating for nature and communities as the illegal ivory trade has shown. The Committee specifically debated the situation regarding countries implicated in illegal ivory trade.

WWF-Hong Kong’s Cheryl Lo said:

“We were disappointed that Japan and Singapore were not asked to prepare national ivory action plans, as many other countries have been required to do, given that both are implicated in illegal trade. We were pleased that many other countries including China, Viet Nam, Kenya, Tanzania and Qatar were retained in the scrutiny process. WWF urges all countries that have domestic markets that contribute to poaching and illegal trade to close those markets as a matter of urgency.”

On other matters, Japan failed to persuade the Committee that its hunting of Sei whales in international waters – the meat of which is sold in Japanese markets - is primarily for scientific purposes end eligible for exemption from normal CITES rules. This parallels the very long debate that has gone unresolved in at the International Whaling Commission and in the International Court of Justice over Japan’s controversial “scientific” whaling.

The Secretariat will seek to visit Japan and a final decision will be taken at the next meeting of the Standing Committee in October 2018.

Aimee Leslie, WWF’s cetacean expert said:

“This is the last chance for Japan. “We call on Japan to end this take forthwith, as we share the prevailing view that it is in breach of CITES rules.”


About WWF

WWF is one of the world’s largest and most respected independent conservation organizations, with over 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of the Earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption. Visit

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