A 12-day summit designed to protect the planet's most troubled wildlife concluded last week, and by many accounts it was a roaring success. Endangered species won't be saved from the brink of extinction overnight, but compared with the glacial pace of many similar environmental conferences — namely United Nations climate talks — the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was action-packed.

That's especially important because, unlike annual U.N. climate negotiations, CITES is held just once every three years. It's often bogged down by countries that have vested interests in exploiting certain species, and while that still happened at this year's CITES in Bangkok, pro-conservation countries also banded together to force significant action on several fronts, raising hopes that global wildlife laws may finally be growing teeth.

Now that the 16th CITES has come to an end, here's a look at some of its achievements:


New protections for sharks, as well as manta rays, made perhaps the biggest splash at CITES 2013. On the conference's first day, scientists presented evidence that humans kill roughly 100 million sharks every year, a death toll that threatens many species with extinction. And despite pressure from China and Japan, both of which staunchly oppose international fishing regulations, delegates were able to uphold landmark new safeguards for five at-risk sharks: porbeagles, oceanic whitetips, great hammerheads (pictured below), scalloped hammerheads and smooth hammerheads.

great hammerhead shark

A great hammerhead shark swims in the Bahamas at sunset. (Photo: Brian Skerry/NOAA)

The shark rulings were "probably the most significant advancement" at CITES, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, since they're the first protections for sharks that are widely caught and traded en masse, both for their meat and their fins. Delegates also approved similar measures for manta rays, which are commonly killed for their gill plates and are susceptible to overfishing because of slow reproduction rates.

"This is a historic moment, where science has prevailed over politics, as sharks and manta rays are being obliterated from our oceans," Carlos Drews of the World Wildlife Fund said in a statement on the conference's final day. "This decision will put a major dent in the uncontrolled trade in shark meat and fins, which is rapidly destroying populations of these precious animals to feed the growing demand for luxury goods."

CITES can't ban local fishing for sharks and manta rays, but it can require anglers to prove their catch was legally caught and to obtain permits before exporting them.


The global plight of turtles made strange bedfellows of the U.S. and China this year, which teamed up in Bangkok for the first time in CITES history. Both countries are rapidly losing endangered turtles, both to Western pet traders and to Asian food and medicine markets, so they joined forces to pass new international protections for several dozen turtle species, including 30 kinds of freshwater box turtles and eight of their soft-shelled relatives.

green sea turtle

A green sea turtle swims at an aquarium in Malaysia. (Photo: Tengku Bahar/AFP/Getty Images)

Wild turtles are now rare across much of East Asia, where many people believe they can hijack the reptiles' long lifespans by ingesting them. Unfortunately for turtles, their biological strategy of longevity has come at the expense of reproductive frequency, so the mad scramble is outpacing their ability to replenish lost populations.

Led by the U.S. and China, however, nearly 200 nations agreed at CITES to pass tougher regulations on the international turtle trade. Even Japan, which isn't known for wildlife advocacy, joined in by proposing the rare Ryukyu black-breasted leaf turtle as a candidate for protection under CITES Appendix II. According to the conservation group TRAFFIC, this is the first time Japan has ever submitted such a proposal to CITES.

Elephants and rhinos

Multinational crime syndicates have waged war on elephants and rhinoceroses lately, fueled by rising demand in Asia for their tusks and horns. Elephant ivory is a valued carving material, despite an abundance of humane alternatives, and rhino horn is valued as an aphrodisiac and a wonder drug, despite scientific evidence that it's just keratin, much like human hair or toenails. The resulting slaughter has decimated both animals, but CITES delegates in Bangkok may have at least put a dent in the free-for-all.

The conference featured beefed-up agreements on the trade of rhino and elephant parts, including measures to boost forensic testing of seized or stockpiled contraband, a strategy that uses DNA and other scientific clues to pursue poachers and smugglers. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra also vowed to crack down on the host country's legal trade of imported ivory, the same day a new study revealed that Africa's forest elephant population had fallen 62 percent in just the past 10 years. Conservationists didn't get many of the trade sanctions they wanted, but delegates did approve a slew of updated rules, including a requirement that eight countries where most illegal ivory and rhino horns are traded — China, Kenya, Malaysia, Philippines, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda and Vietnam — step up enforcement or risk sanctions. Under CITES rules, offenders that don't reform could be forbidden from trading any wildlife with other CITES members.

forest elephants

Forest elephants bathe in the Mbeli River, Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Congo. (Photo: PLoS)

As science writer Carl Safina points out, the recent rebound in elephant poaching — after years of progress in the 1990s and early 2000s — may be partly CITES' fault. After passing an ivory ban in 1989, CITES delegates relaxed the rules in 2008, allowing stockpiled ivory to be sold in China. This provided cover for smugglers, and according to Safina, up to 90 percent of ivory sold in China now comes from newly, illegally killed elephants. Still, CITES made some amends this year in Bangkok, both by addressing supply and demand.

On top of DNA tests and sanctions, delegates voted to set up Wildlife Incident Support Teams (WISTs), staffed by enforcement officers and wildlife experts who can be dispatched at the request of a country that has discovered a poaching incident or seized a shipment of CITES-listed specimens. And on the demand side, delegates also pushed for more public-awareness campaigns like Chinese basketball star Yao Ming's PSAs against shark fins, rhino horns and ivory. "This is the best — and possibly the only — way to save elephant populations in the long term," according to a recent editorial in the journal Nature.

Great apes

About 3,000 live great apes are stolen from the wild each year in Africa and Asia, according to a U.N. report released this month to coincide with CITES. As with elephants and rhinos, this illegal trade is linked to crime syndicates that move animals across borders like drugs, weapons or laundered money. At least 22,218 great apes have been taken from the wild since 2005, the report finds, nearly two-thirds of which are chimpanzees.

The apes are poached mainly for private collectors in the Middle East and unscrupulous zoos in Asia, the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) reports, and their social nature often leads poachers to gun down entire chimp or gorilla groups just to steal one infant.

mountain gorilla baby

Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, D.R. Congo. (Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

The report "underlines how important it is that the international community and the organizations responsible for conserving endangered species remain vigilant, keeping a step ahead of those seeking to profit from such illegal activities," UNEP's Achim Steiner said in a press release. Much of that vigilance hinges on knowing the scope of the problem, added Doug Cress of the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), noting that hard data have been hard to come by. "It is important to establish baseline figures for the illegal trade in great apes, even if these numbers only hint at the devastation," he said. "Great apes are extremely important for the health of forests in Africa and Asia, and even the loss of 10 or 20 at a time can have a deep impact on biodiversity."

That message seemed to resonate with CITES delegates in Bangkok, who agreed for the first time to establish a global reporting system to monitor how many great apes are being poached from the wild. Conservationists applauded the move, even while acknowledging the difficulty in tracking a shadowy trade that targets apes for a wide range of reasons, from bushmeat feasts to black-market zoos. And as dangerous as poachers are, Cress points out that habitat loss is still the No. 1 danger for many great ape populations. "I think we're waking up to the problem," Cress tells NBC News. "The problem is human beings are in direct competition with great apes. They are our closet cousins we're fighting with. We'll win because we're that much smarter, but we will also lose by winning."


They may be less charismatic than rhinos, turtles and even sharks, but some endangered trees also received much-needed attention in Bangkok last week. The global trade in illegal timber is said to be worth about $30 billion per year, and CITES delegates focused most of their arboreal intervention on two particularly troubled trees: rosewood and ebony.

Both are overharvested in Southeast Asia as well as Africa, namely Madagascar, to make high-end furniture. Rosewood is logged intensively in Thailand, where it meets demand from China's growing middle class, but Thai rosewood will now be listed in CITES Appendix II, a designation that requires permits from exporters as well as importers.

rosewood tree

A rosewood tree growing near Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo: Beatrice Murch/Flickr)

Endangered ebony from Madagascar is also popular and widely sold in China, despite existing Malagasy laws that ban exports of the dense, dark-colored wood. But under CITES restrictions, exporting countries will need to play a more active role in ensuring their native species aren't being harvested unsustainably — and if they are, a lack of legal measures or enforcement could trigger across-the-board sanctions on all CITES species.

"I think it is exciting to see that CITES is being brave enough in the face of very persuasive commercial operations to address tree species," Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation tells the BBC. "Everybody now recognizes that there is a serious crisis out there — the demand side of the equation has to be addressed, and the only way of doing that is to put these species on Appendix II."


Despite such breakthroughs, however, CITES 2013 also yielded plenty of disappointment for wildlife advocates. An effort to ban international trade in polar bear parts, for example, failed despite vocal support from the U.S. delegation. That proposal forged another unlikely alliance between the Americans and the Russians, but in the bizarre world of polar-bear politics, it was traditional U.S. ally Canada that helped shoot down the idea. The final tally was 38 nations in favor, 42 opposed and 46 abstaining from the vote.

"As polar bear hide prices have skyrocketed, more bears are being offered at auction, and hunting levels have increased," Ashe said in a statement. "A CITES Appendix I listing would have ensured that commercial trade would not compound the threats of habitat loss that are facing this species." Canada argued the U.S. was exaggerating the problem, and pointed to indigenous Inuit hunters whose livelihoods could be affected.

Delegates also left ample work for themselves to tackle when they reconvene in three years. Conservationists will likely renew their calls for full-scale bans on elephant ivory, polar bear hides and many other animal parts, and the specter of climate change increasingly complicates existing threats liking overhunting and habitat loss.

"I've been to the last six CITES meetings," U.S. delegate Craig Hoover told Al Jazeera on the conference's final day. "Without question, this has been the most successful, from our perspective. The challenge now is for CITES to build on this momentum and ensure it follows through on what was agreed here in Bangkok."

The next CITES will be held in South Africa in 2016.

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

5 big breakthroughs at CITES 2013
The international wildlife-saving conference, held just once every three years, yielded more progress in 2013 than many conservationists have come to expect.