A proposal to give protection status to the woolly mammoth, a species that has been extinct for 10,000 years, is the latest attempt by conservation-minded countries to stop its genetic cousin the African elephant from following in the mammoth's giant footsteps by slipping into extinction.
The proposal by Israel to afford the prehistoric mammoth Appendix II protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) at its meeting taking place in Sri Lanka in May, could play a vital role in saving elephants who are being poached at the rate of around 30,000 animals a year. Unlike the demise of the mammoth, it is the global ivory trade that is decimating elephants. Although international trade in elephant ivory has been banned since 1990, traffickers often try to pass off ivory as legal mammoth ivory to circumvent the ban, because of its near-identical appearance.
Israel's proposal is one of 57 announced this week by CITES. Countries from around the world submitted the proposals seeking to increase or decrease protections for 152 wild animal species affected by international commercial trade. These include conflicting proposals on elephants, with nine African countries wanting to up-list the African elephants of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe from Appendix II to I in the face of an insatiable poaching crisis, whilst a proposal by Zambia seeks to down-list its elephants to Appendix II to allow international commercial trade in raw ivory. And Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, whose populations of the species are already on Appendix II, want to weaken existing restrictions on their ability, and that of South Africa whose elephant population is also on Appendix II, to export ivory to consumer countries.
Other species on the CITES agenda include the giraffe whose wild populations have declined by up to 40 percent in the last 30 years due to habitat loss and poaching, Mako sharks threatened by the Asian shark fin trade, Sri Lankan lizards imperilled by the exotic pet trade, giant guitarfish and 10 species of wedge fish declining due to over-fishing, and a proposal by Namibia to down-list the Southern white rhino and by Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) to allow trade in rhino horn.
Wildlife experts at Humane Society International, who will attend the CITES meeting in Sri Lanka, say that nations need to urgently reboot their approach to wildlife protection in the face of unsustainable trade driving species to the edge of extinction.
Kitty Block, president of Humane Society International, said: "Every single day, human-induced habitat loss, poaching, commercial trade and climate change are pushing more of our planet's precious wild species towards extinction. We can no longer afford any complacency when it comes to saving wild animal species threatened by over-exploitation, and so as we welcome CITES proposals to establish new or increased protections, we urge nations to ensure that species conservation is approached as a necessity not a luxury, with pro-active trade restrictions imposed long before a species is at the extinction precipice.
"With ivory traffickers exploiting the long-extinct mammoth so that they can further exploit imperilled elephants, the time is now for African and all other nations to unite in the fight to end the poaching epidemic and ensure all ivory markets are closed. Giraffes too need our urgent attention, having already disappeared from seven countries and now quietly slipping into extinction with the wild population at or just under 100,000. The time to act is now before we lose them forever."
Nicola Beynon, Head of Campaigns in Australia, said: "Humane Society International is pleased eighteen species of shark and may have been put forward for CITES protection with a large number of countries stepping up to defend them from the voracious trade in their meat and fins."
CITES offers three levels of protection, and the proposals generally aim to list currently unlisted species or to increase or decrease protection between Appendix I (which more or less prevents commercial international trade) and II (which allows trade under special conditions).
CITES proposals of note include:
• Giraffe: Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Senegal have proposed to list the giraffe on CITES Appendix II. The species is currently not CITES-listed; its wild population has declined by between 36 per cent and 40 per cent over the last 30 years; it is threatened by poaching, and it is internationally traded: nearly 40,000 giraffes and their parts and products were imported to the U.S. from 2006-2015, including bone carvings (21,402), bones (4,789), trophies (3,744), skin pieces (3,008), bone pieces (1,903), skins (855), and jewellery (825). The latest International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species has added the Kordofan and Nubian subspecies of giraffes to the list of "critically endangered," with fewer than 4,650 animals left. The reticulated, Thornicroft's and West African giraffe subspecies were also listed as endangered or vulnerable. Giraffes have disappeared completely from Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal.
• African elephant: Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria and Togo have proposed to transfer elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe from Appendix II to Appendix I in order to offer maximum protection under CITES in the face of the ongoing threat posed by the unsustainable demand from the ivory trade, the uncertainty of the impact of that trade on the species across its range, and the enforcement problems that exist because the level of protection is inconsistent across the continent, with some populations protected under Appendix I and others under Appendix II.
In a separate proposal, Zambia seeks to transfer its elephant population from Appendix I to II and to allow international trade in raw ivory for commercial purposes; and Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe have proposed to allow unlimited amounts of registered raw ivory from government-owned stocks to be traded to importing Parties verified by the Secretariat to have certain measures in place to, among other things, prevent re-export.
• Woolly mammoth - Israel proposes to list the woolly mammoth in Appendix II to tackle the growing trade in mammoth ivory which can be used to launder illegal elephant ivory. To get around the elephant ivory ban, traders sometimes mix the two ivories together, and in the absence of a reliable and cost-effective test to distinguish between the two, the market in mammoth ivory is providing a dangerous cover for poached elephant ivory.
• Mako sharks, giant guitarfishes and wedgefishes: sharks and rays have again broken the CITES record for numbers of countries proposing listings. Longfin and shortfin Mako sharks, six species of giant guitarfishes, and 10 species of wedgefishes have been proposed for listing on CITES Appendix II. All of these fish species are declining in the wild, mainly as a result of over-fishing, particularly for the lucrative Asian shark fin market.
• Southern white rhino: Namibia has proposed to transfer its population from Appendix I to II, and Eswatini has proposed a measure that would allow international trade in rhino horns for commercial purposes. There is an estimated 20,000 southern white rhino in Africa, and they remain threatened by poaching for their horn. Poaching in South Africa, which is home to around 90 per cent of southern white rhino, has escalated enormously in recent years.
• Australian proposals: The Australian government has proposed downlisting the western rufous bristlebird which is now extinct, as well as down listings for the western bristlebird, greater stick-nest rat, shark bay mouse, false water rat and central rock rat.
"Humane Society International stands ready to assist all those countries at CITES seeking increased protection for species imperilled by commercial trade. We hope the Australian government will be giving them their vote too," concluded Ms Beynon.