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Diary of a first-timer at CITES

Lara Rall reflects on her first experience of a meeting of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Proceedings get underway in Geneva at the 18th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP18).
First impressions

The hall is enormous. There are rows of tables and chairs from left to right, back to front. The room is filling up rapidly, so I quickly make my way to an open seat in the back. We are about to start.

I am at the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) as part of the WWF delegation’s communications team in Geneva.

Over 12 days representatives from 183 countries will deliberate and vote on international wildlife trade. With biodiversity across the world under immense threat from habitat loss, degradation, overexploitation and climate change, this convention plays an important role in efforts to ensure international trade supports rather than negatively affects wildlife populations.

In the front, facing us, are the Chair, the CITES Secretariat and rapporteurs. Country representatives are assigned the first few rows and others are not allowed in this area (I am embarrassed to admit, there are countries I have not heard of and had to Google). Only country representatives are allowed to vote.  In the rows behind them sit the intergovernmental organisations followed by non-governmental organisations like ourselves, observers and media.

Flags from some of the 183 nations represented at the CoP18.
But first, some history...

CITES was born before I was. At a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1963, members of the union called for international cooperation in the regulation of international wildlife trade. In 1973, 21 countries signed the convention, which came into force two years later.

Fast-forward four decades, 183 countries are now signatories to CITES. During the same period, populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have plummeted, as reported by WWF in its 2018 Living Planet Report.

Conventions like CITES and the Convention on Biological Diversity make decisions that will put measures in place to help stop the decline. Countries have to incorporate these decisions into their national legislation and act against anyone who breaks these laws.

Every morning the WWF group, together with the delegation from TRAFFIC and the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), meets early over breakfast to reflect on the outcomes of the previous day and run through the current day’s programme.
On the hop

I’d been warned, CITES procedures and processes can be confusing and difficult to follow. I was not ill-advised; it’s busy. There are more than 100 agenda items and 3000 pages of documents being reviewed, with 50 species-proposals under consideration. Agenda items are moved around and some run late into the evening. During lunch and afternoon breaks there are side events where conservation news, proposals and positions are hotly debated. Everywhere you see groups strategising, advocating, lobbying. While many countries will have taken a position ahead of the meeting, there are some whose votes could still make a difference to an outcome.

Attending CITES gives me the invaluable opportunity to get to know my fellow WWF colleagues from across international waters and country borders. Our delegation is represented by experts on the conservation of species being discussed at the CoP, supported by the communications team. We come from all over the world, including Australia, Cameroon, China, Pakistan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Zambia. Sometimes we have different perspectives on conservation, but we are all driven by the commitment to use the best scientific knowledge available, together with our local experience, to support conservation that benefits people, in particular, those who live with wildlife.

I see the important role WWF plays at CITES. WWF is a credible, science-driven organisation that supports our countries’ governments with reliable information to make informed decisions at CITES and other conventions. Where appropriate, and when NGOs are given an opportunity to speak at the conference, WWF presents its position on proposals, based on the best available scientific information, conservation best practices and the guiding principles of CITES.

Members of the WWF team (from left): Elizabeth Davis (WWF US), Rebecca Clear (WWF International), Maru Valdes (WWF US) and myself, Lara Rall (WWF SA) relax together after a full day's work.
Home truths

In a room full of people from all over the world, a few things are reaffirmed for me.

First, wildlife is a resource we all value differently. For some, it is purely aesthetic. For others, it has cultural or economic value, represents a way of life, or an opportunity for a better life.

Second, there are no clear-cut answers. Every species, country, and situation is different. CITES should be able to adapt to these changes and we cannot rely on a convention alone to solve population decline.

Finally, what must remain consistent is sincere and meaningful international collaboration. The survival of our wildlife and the sustainable contribution it makes to building healthy, safe, and economically secure communities depends on it.

CITES is ultimately about the need to protect wildlife species from dramatic decline or extinction due to trade and the need for nations to use these resources to the benefit of their people. We have to find a workable balance between the needs of people and nature.

Lake view of Geneva where the CITES meeting was being held.
Lara Rall Photo
Lara Rall, Communications Manager, Khetha Programme

Lara Rall works on the Khetha Programme which works to reduce the impact of the illegal wildlife trade on rhinos and elephants, and the people who live with them.

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