Wild ambitions: countries meet in Panama to discuss future of planet's species

Ivonne Higuero, secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Panama City for its 19th Conference of Parties.(Credit: CITES)

As the UN’s climate-change summit in Egypt enters its second week, some 12,000 km east, a different Cop focused on protecting the planet’s endangered species gets underway in Panama today. For Ivonne Higuero, secretary general of CITES – the global convention on the trade in endangered species that is behind the conference – countries can no longer delay decisions on the impending environmental crisis.

Sharks, forever cast as the villains of the sea world, have made a major comeback in popular culture of late. There’s Bruce in Finding Nemo, and the so-terrible-that-it’s-good Hollywood Sharknado franchise. But arguably their biggest hit date is ‘Baby Shark’, the children’s song whose video has been watched more times than there are people on the planet.

If only their TV success reflected what was happening in reality. Instead, the number of sharks has plunged by 70 per cent since 1970 according to a recent study by Nature, in large part due to unregulated trade in their meat and fins, and causing an “unprecedented increase in the risk of extinction”.  As the song goes, no more baby, mummy, and daddy shark…

The threatened fate of the ocean’s top predator is one of the items on the agenda of this week at Cop19, the main decision-making body of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), taking place in Panama from 14 until 25 November.

Every two to three years, representatives from the 184 countries party to the multilateral agreement, together with wildlife experts and environmental organisations, meet to discuss the status of the world’s animals and plants, whether their trade should be restricted or banned, and how to safeguard them from illegal trafficking.

The Geneva-based convention regulates the trade in the over 38,000 species that are listed in its three appendices to ensure their survival and safeguard them from extinction.

For its secretary general Ivonne Higuero, an environmental economist who has worked for 24 years at the UN, the timing of this year’s conference is more critical than ever as the threat of habitat loss, climate change and overexploitation become more acute. “Of course, there’s always an emergency dealing with the environment. We’ve had a lot of issues going on in the last decades, but we are really at a crossroads right now,” she tells Geneva Solutions from Panama City.

“On the one hand, we’re hearing about millions of species possibly going extinct. And on the other, we’re talking about climate change and how we’re already late in addressing issues like lowering emissions,” she continues.

“So it’s a time of reflection, to ask ourselves, are we taking the right decisions – and do we need to do things differently than what we have been doing?”

Safeguarding 600 species

There are 52 proposals on the table for review at the conference, with delegates weighing up whether tighter trade regulations are needed for nearly 600 species of flora and fauna including reptiles such as crocodiles, caiman and lizards, iconic species of rhino, elephant and hippo, and all species of orchids.

There are also three proposals to list dozens of sharks and rays as well as their “lookalikes” to ensure trade rules are properly enforced. “Having this list of sharks among the proposals sends several messages about overfishing, overconsumption, and what we’re doing to our marine environment,” Higuero says.

“Sharks are an apex predator and a key species for marine ecosystems. If we get rid of sharks, what does this mean for our ocean? As human beings, we need to stop and to think about our own behaviours and what we’re doing that's damaging wildlife,” she adds.

Some 200 species of trees will also be considered for tighter trade regulations. Not as fluffy and cuddly as some endangered mammals on the agenda that often garner more public attention, protecting them is equally important and the fate of the planet depends on them, Higuero stresses.

Timber is the world’s most valuable wildlife commodity in trade and species such as rosewood among the most trafficked wildlife products.

“[Illegal logging] is not something that’s easy to keep an eye on because these are huge forested areas we’re talking about and it’s very difficult to control,” Higuero says.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, illegal logging accounts for 50 to 90 per cent of all forestry-related activities, contributing to biodiversity loss and climate change.

The tragedy, Higuero points out, is that these illegal activities are done for short-term financial gains that destroy not only the ecosystem but also the wellbeing of future generations and their livelihoods. “If those species go extinct, if they’re so damaged that we can't grow them again, then how are they going to contribute to those countries that need to develop and create jobs?”

‘One health’ approach for biodiversity and wildlife

Covid, together with the climate and environmental crisis, has put the spotlight on the increasing risk of “zoonotic spillovers” – where viruses transfer from animals to people – and the risk of future pandemics.

It is one of the topics expected to dominate discussions in Panama this week – and what the convention can do to help reduce the risk of transmission through the wildlife trade.

“There are some proposals on the work that can be done,” Higuero says.  One would be drawing on the World Health Organization’s “One Health” approach and getting health authorities, veterinarians, wildlife authorities, and the environment sector to work together to ensure better safety in dealing with animals.

Creating an stronger international alliance of actors, Higuero continues, “would also help ensure that there's better biosafety biosecurity protocols at the national level, that there are better inspections of markets … and that on an international trade level, when these animals are crossing borders, veterinarians have checked that they are in good health.”

A second proposal is also being discussed by delegates to go beyond an alliance approach and set up a committee within CITES to look at animal health.

However, Higuero is concerned that such an approach would detract from CITES’ key focus on trade and wildlife species conservation, especially when there are already other organisations, like the World Organisation on Animal Health (WOAH), already carrying out this work.

Increasing finance for wildlife and biodiversity

Finance is also high on the agenda for negotiators at Cop19, with the main questions echoing those currently being debated in Egypt: how to plug the huge gap in funding needed to address the global biodiversity crisis and protect the one million animal and plant species that are currently threatened with extinction?

More than $700bn is needed each year to address the global biodiversity crisis, according to a study released earlier this year by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“We need to ask ourselves how are we going to find these extra funds, and how are we going to broaden the donor base, not only from public funds – because we know that there are limits to this  – but also private funds,” says Higuero.

“So, we need to be much more innovative and bring in banks, private wealth, and private investors who want to invest in biodiversity and habitats and in finding ways to get a return.”

In March, the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility, launched a five-year, $150 million “rhino bond” to help support South Africa’s efforts to increase black rhino populations, in one example of new financing mechanisms being piloted.

“We’re hoping that we can expand this and think about African elephants and other types of conservation needs by attracting similar private investments as in these rhino bonds,” Higuero adds.

Four conference of parties – one mission

With four Cops taking place back to back – Cop27, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (Cop14) which closed yesterday, CITES’ Cop19 and the UN Biodiversity Conference (Cop15) in December – creating partnerships, and ensuring continuity in the discussions between these different conferences, is “essential”, says Higuero – especially when it comes to financing where resources are scarce.

“If we are not talking to each other and finding out what gives us the biggest bang for our buck, we’re doing a disservice to conservation. So, we need to be having those kinds of conversations at the national level, especially when it comes to funding, not competing with each other, and looking for those synergies that everybody talks about.”

The global biodiversity framework that is expected to be adopted at Cop15, should go a long way in ensuring that this joined-up approach  in managing and conserving nature at both a national and international level will be met, Higuero says.

“Under the global biodiversity framework, there’s language in there that these national biodiversity strategies need to encompass all the biodiversity-related conventions plus, thinking about chemicals and thinking about climate.”

“It’s a triple planetary crisis – it’s climate, it’s chemicals and it’s biodiversity. Let’s see how we can work together, because all these things affect each other… and it’s all there in these conventions – we just need to implement them. We need action.”