A disappointing result for cheetahs at COP18

 Dr. Laurie Marker, Cheetah Conservation Fund’s (CCF) Founder and Executive Director, traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to rally government and NGO support for decisions impacting the cheetah at the triennial World Wildlife Conference August 17 – 28, 2019. Known formally as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) CoP18, the event brought together 169 member governments plus the EU, and some 1,700 delegates, observers and journalists to decide on key issues for more than 35,000 plant and animal species. CITES remains one of the world’s most powerful tools for wildlife conservation through the regulation of trade. 

For CCF, CITES CoP18 represented an opportunity to meet personally with member governments and delegates from cheetah range states and countries impacted by the illegal trade in cheetah. Dr. Marker shared critical information through close, personal interaction, meeting with hundreds of people in the span of two weeks. She explained how in 2005, Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) began tracking incidents of cheetah trafficking and assisting authorities with confiscations whenever possible. To date, CCF has recorded hundreds of incidents involving more than 1,500 cheetahs or cheetah parts. Of these, less than 20% are known to have survived, while more than 35% were confirmed dead. Most of the trade in live cheetahs occurs between East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where cheetahs are popular pets across the Gulf States. Trafficked cheetahs are believed to originate in Ethiopia, northern Kenya, Somalia and Somaliland, and most are smuggled from points along the Somaliland coast into the Arabian Peninsula through Yemen. The route is favored by traffickers for its short distance between the two continents. 

“With the growing number of cubs taken each year, and the adult reproducing population being only 300 to 500 in areas where cubs are poached, it is only a matter of a few years before wild cheetah populations in the Horn of Africa are wiped out by illegal trade,” said Dr. Laurie Marker, CCF Founder and Executive Director. 

To prepare for CoP18, CCF and other members of a CITES NGO coalition for cheetah, supported range states’ initiatives to keep the pressure on traffickers and build capacity in law enforcement to better manage the threat. These were presented in the form of draft ‘decisions,’ a term CITES uses to describe an action it endorses. Despite the best efforts of NGO cheetah coalition to support member countries’ efforts and get other delegates to accept all the draft decisions, CITES Parties only agreed to the ones regarding the completion and translation of a Cheetah Trade Tool Kit to assist law enforcement and wildlife officers. This kit was initiated at CoP17 in October 2016, although it is still in draft form. 

“CCF is disappointed in the outcome of CoP18 for the cheetah. We had hoped to have each of the decisions for the cheetah accepted,” said Dr. Marker. “Cheetahs are listed by CITES as an Appendix 1 species and as such, should be afforded the highest levels of protection of the international convention. The international community must respond to the growing extinction crisis by recognizing how trafficking threatens the cheetah’s existence, and by acting now, while we still have time to save them. Turning a blind eye to illegal trade is not an option we will accept.”  

While CITES did not deliver protection for the cheetah, CCF was pleased it did recognize the critical role of local and indigenous communities that live on the frontlines of wildlife conservation and sustainable management. CCF has long been a proponent of recognizing the need for adequate incomes and livelihoods among the communities that live alongside wildlife. The conference asked Parties to begin considering how to best engage indigenous peoples and local communities in CITES decision-making and implementation. The aim is to better achieve the objectives of the Convention while recognizing those people whose use of CITES-listed species contributes significantly to their livelihoods. CCF considers this a significant step forward for the concept of community-based natural resource management, a successful and proven strategy in Namibia. 

Dr. Marker met many people representing their governments in policy-making, communications and advocacy. In one-on-one and small group meetings, the information put forth by CCF was eagerly received. The responses from many of the delegates indicated their support for the cheetah and for CITES to act on the illegal trade in this species. Ed Brown, manager of CCF’s illegal wildlife trade law enforcement capacity building project, LICIT (Legal Intelligence for Cheetah Illicit Trade), joined Dr. Marker in Geneva to meet with member countries and NGOs that make up the Horn of Africa Wildlife Enforcement Network (HAWEN). CCF Illegal Wildlife Trade Consultant Patricia Tricorache was also at CoP18 advocating for the cheetah. 

Between now and CoP19, CCF plans to continue meeting with the cheetah NGO coalition and communicating with the contacts made at CoP18. CCF will participate in the African Carnivores Initiative and Big Cat Task Force, two CITES initiatives that may provide some protection for cheetah beyond what was suggested in the draft decisions. 

“We know the trade exists, because we have seen it with our own eyes. It is only a matter of time before the rest of the world does, too. Until then, we will continue our work in the Horn and look for new data sets in the Middle East that will compel CITES to respond,” added Dr. Marker. 

The CITES permit system seeks to ensure that international trade in listed species is sustainable, legal and traceable. CITES was signed in Washington D.C. on March 3, 1973 and entered into force July 1, 1975. 

CoP19 will be held in 2022 in Costa Rica. 

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