Does it really help to be on the A list?

As I mentioned in my last post, species listed on Appendix I of CITES are not permitted in international commercial trade. These are species which are threatened with extinction if trade continues. Trade is allowed only for non-commercial use and under exceptional circumstances. In order for the specimen to be transported internationally, first an import permit must be issued which guarantees that A) the specimen is destined only for non-commercial use, B) the future use is not detrimental to the survival of the species, and C) if it’s a live animal (CITES covers animal products as well as living individuals), the proposed new caretakers can provide adequate care. Once the import permit is issued, an export permit must then be issued to ensure that the specimen was legally obtained, such international trade is not detrimental to the survival of the species, and, in the case of a live animal, adequate travel preparations have been made. Why require two separate permits? The goal here is extra oversight- if customs is checking paperwork both at exit and entry, hopefully there is a better chance of catching illegal trade, plus two separate authorities have to determine that the trade would not be detrimental to the survival of the species.

Does a ban on commercial trade help species rebound? That is the big question, on many levels. Some species and populations have been downgraded from Appendix I to Appendix II- in 2004, for example, the bald eagle as a whole was downlisted, as was the Cuban population of American crocodiles. Many other species, however, have been placed on Appendix I and remain there. Does this mean that Appendix I doesn’t work? No, although it means there are a variety of obstacles which hamper the positive impacts of a trade ban. In earlier posts I have provided commentary on current levels of ivory poaching, so I’m not going to re-open the elephant discussion (although that situation remains as dark as it was a few months ago)- instead I want to focus on tigers as an example of how CITES is important for conservation, but is not a panacea for endangered species. I truly believe that a trade ban is necessary in the case of tigers, but I don’t think it’s enough.

2120044601What’s the deal with tigers? The last several hundred years have seen a dramatic decline in all tiger subspecies (and we lost 2)- today tigers occupy about 7% of their original range and the wild population is estimated between 3400 and 5150 animals (Kirkpatrick & Emerton 2010). The bulk of that, as well as most of the protected areas and larger ‘source’ populations, are found in India (Seidensticker 2010). Tigers are listed in Appendix I (in fact, all of the felids, with the exception of the house cat, are in either I or II) which means there is a complete trade ban. Is this helping? Not enough, but for several very different reasons. As Damania et al. (2003) pointed out, tigers continue to be hunted and traded specifically because there is a still a market for tiger products. Because tiger products are in demand for medicinal uses and status symbols, among other things, poaching continues despite the trade ban. Between 1970 and 1993, over 3990 kilograms of illegal bones were transported from Indonesia to South Korea (Wibisono & Pusparini 2010). As long as there is demand coupled with economic incentive, someone will step in to fill the void- in the case of tigers, it is felt that, while local hunters are the ones actually killing the tigers, well-financed international cartels control the black market trade. Damania et al. (2003) suggested that making poaching itself more costly, in the form of larger fines, jail sentences, etc., could help dissuade local hunters, although that doesn’t address how to give people economic alternatives to poaching in the first place. A more global effort is needed to end illegal international trade. Apart from the poaching of tigers, there are also concerns about poaching of the prey tigers need to survive, sometimes for human consumption and sometimes in retaliation for eating a farmer’s crop. Without an adequate prey base, tigers are condemned to further conflict with humans and population decline. Finally, a trade ban doesn’t deal with one of the biggest issues facing tigers: habitat loss. With growing human populations throughout the tiger’s range and greater human exploitation of natural resources, even if tigers weren’t being hunted for illegal trade, they would still be facing massive challenges. Does that mean CITES can’t help? Absolutely not- even with more prey and larger reserves, tiger populations are believed to be able to sustain at most 15% annual mortality (Seidensticker 2010)- poaching-related deaths alone in the Russian Far East between 1992 and 2002 amounted to a 20% annual mortality rate (Kirkpatrick & Emerton 2010). So tigers need protection from poaching, but they also need larger, more connected reserves, and a protected prey base.

What can we do to help? There are a number of ways to better protect tigers at many different conservation levels in addition to abstaining from use of tiger products:

  • Tigers need access to more protected habitat and to corridors between protected areas; at the same time local people need to feel that they benefit economically from the presence of living tigers. Generally people outside of Asia can contribute to these goals largely through donations, although travelling to tiger countries, if that’s an option, is another way of showing that living tigers have value. There are a number of conservation organizations with tiger-focused programs, including WWF, Panthera, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
  • In terms of global cooperation, the CITES Secretariat needs to have the resources and authority to address illegal trading networks- that kind of support comes from signatory nations, and quite a few, including the US and many European nations, provide direct funding, training, and information for halting illegal trade in endangered species. But that support is in some ways contingent upon citizens of those countries making it clear that regulation of this trade is important to them- so be sure to communicate your concerns to your elected officials. There are also ways the international community can provide incentives for tiger habitat protection- according to Wikramanayake et al. (2011), protected landscapes with tigers have several times the carbon density of landscapes around the protected areas- they could be used in carbon trading programs, thereby protecting tigers and providing an economic boost to the country itself.
  • Even in our daily lives we can make choices that help tigers- Save Tigers Now advocates using recycled and FSC-certified wood products to ensure that the resources you use are harvested sustainably. The same applies to shade-grown coffee.
  • The Wildlife Conservation Society also has a program to support and train Russian students for tiger research and conservation- I think this is a fantastic idea because the goal is that communities and nations have committed conservationists with the knowledge and skills they need to be effective in their own landscapes- although it is not directly mentioned on their website, I imagine that WCS can use support in these efforts as well, and I think it would be great if people could sponsor students and local community members in terms of training and tiger-friendly economic development.

So there are ways to help support tiger populations, some of which are directly related to the intent of Appendix I and some of which are outside of that arena. Put together, those efforts can really make a difference for a species that is threatened by human exploitation on multiple levels. I encourage you to take a look at the list of Appendix I, II, and III species to get a better sense of which trades are regulated and brainstorm ways to support CITES. In my next post, I’ll look at species with allowed but regulated international trade.

Works cited:

Damania, R, Stringer, R, Karanth, KU and B Stith. 2003. The economics of protecting tiger populations: linking household behavior to poaching and prey depletion. Land Economics 79: 198-216.

Kirkpatrick, RC and L Emerton. 2010. Killing tigers to save them: fallacies of the farming argument. Conservation Biology 24: 655-659.

Seidensticker, J. 2010. Saving wild tigers: a case study in biodiversity loss and challenges to be met for recovery beyond 2010. Integrative Zoology 5: 285-299.

Wibisono, HT and W Pusparini. 2010. Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae): a review of conservation  status. Integrative Zoology 5: 313-323.

Wikramanayake, E, Dinerstein, E, Seidensticker, J, Lumpkin, S, Pandav, B, Shrestha, M, Mishra, H, Ballou, J, Johnsingh, AJT, Chestin, I, sunarto, S, Thinley, P, Thapa, K, Jiang, G, Elagupillay, S, Kafley, H, Man Babu Pradhan, N, Jigme, K, Teak, S, Cutter, P, Abdul Aziz, Md, and U Than. 2011. A landscape-based conservation strategy to double the wild tiger population. Conservation Letters 4: 219-227.