May 23rd, 2019, the 18th Conference ofthe Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species ofWild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will come to Sri Lanka. 3,000 delegates willarrive from all over the globe to discuss the next steps in combatting wildlifetrafficking and the poaching of endangered species. Much work has been done inthe three years since the last conference, and a total of 57 proposals havebeen submitted.
Out of these, Sri Lanka has submittedor co-submitted nine, almost 16% of the total number of proposals. It is thesingle country with the most submissions for COP18 (only the European Union hassubmitted more), and it sends a strong signal: Sri Lanka is committed to preserveits wealth of wildlife and its unique biodiversity.
Four of the proposals concern endemicspecies of Sri Lankan lizards. Under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance(FFPO) of 1993, the export of all reptiles from the island is prohibited.
However, the number of documentedsales, auctions, and online adverts for these species has increased in recentyears. They are sold mainly on the European pet market in countries likeGermany, France, the UK, Italy, Spain, or Russia, and in the US, and cancommand high prices for single specimens or breeding pairs.
The lucrativeness of the tradeincentivizes poachers and traffickers and seriously threatens these animals.The ten sub-species of lizards named in Sri Lanka's proposals are alreadyeither on the National Red List, the IUCN's Red List, or both, as they arehighly vulnerable due to their small populations and limited ranges.
Another reptile joins the lizards inanother of Sri Lanka's proposals, this one co-authored with India: the Indianstar tortoise (Geochelone elegans).Just like the lizards, it is endemic to Sri Lanka as well as parts of India andPakistan. Just like the lizards, it has been protected by the FFPO since 1993.And just like the lizards, its illegal trade is flourishing.
This species of tortoise accounts for11% of all global seizures of freshwater turtles: between 2015 and 2017 alone,at least 3,130 specimens have been seized just in Sri Lanka. The IUCN lists thespecies as vulnerable, and since the tortoises have a low population recoverypotential, it might rapidly slide toward extinction if unsustainabletrafficking continues.
Sri Lankan customs have not been ableto stop exports of these animals, but their placement on the CITES appendix Iwould increase greater pressure on import markets in Europe and elsewhere andhelp protect these species.
Five of Sri Lanka's proposals concernreptiles: another three revolve around fish. Since oceanic ecosystems are notrestricted by land boundaries or borders, all these proposals are co-authoredwith other nations.
They comprise two species ofguitarfish, two species of Mako sharks, and two species of white-spottedwedgefish, all of which are categorized as either vulnerable or endangered onthe IUCN Red
List. However, the case is differentthan it is with the reptiles. Sri Lanka and the co-proponents do not intend tostop all trade with these animals: they just want to save them fromoverexploitation and unsustainable fishing.
Accordingly, they do not advocate forthese fish to be placed on appendix I, which would prohibit any internationalcommercial trade, but instead on appendix II, which regulates and monitorstheir trade. This could allow these species to replenish and thrive again whilestill keeping fishery livelihoods intact and allowing for the use of oceanicecosystem resources.
Five Sri Lankan proposals forreptiles, three for fish: the final one concerns a different class of animal:arachnids. No less than fifteen species endemic to India and/or Sri Lanka areup for appendix II protection: and in fact, this genus of Tarantula occursnowhere else than in these two countries.
Poecilotheria species are the only tarantulas thatare completely arboreal, which means two things: they live in trees, and theyare greatly threatened by habitat loss. These tarantulas are also common tovery common as pets and, like the lizards, often appear in Europe, Russia, orthe US, where they can command high prizes. They are popular for their brightcoloration and size, but since they don't breed well, many of the specimens onthe market are sourced from the wild.
As these tarantula species reproduceslowly and are already threatened through deforestation, the pet trade withthem needs to be stopped from reaching unsustainable levels. To this end, SriLanka has proposed to include them in CITES appendix II alongside theguitarfish, sharks, and wedgefish.
The much-discussed protection of theextinct woolly mammoth (which was proposed by Israel) is of concern for SriLanka for a different reason, and not merely because of the enormous culturalsignificance of elephants on the island.
Ten million mammoths are estimated tobe conserved in the melting arctic permafrost, and selling their ivory causesno immediate harm. However, since elephant and mammoth ivory are very similar,their trade opens a loophole, as elephant ivory may simply be passed off asmammoth ivory.
Since only around 5% of Sri Lankanelephants are tuskers, they have never been an important source of ivory, andSri Lankan elephants are more threatened by habitat loss and human-animalconflict. But Sri Lanka finds itself in another role here: it may not export orimportant significant quantities of elephant ivory, but it facilitates thetrade.
Sri Lanka is a strategic global hubfor all kinds of goods, including elephant and mammoth ivory. The inclusion ofthe woolly mammoth in appendix II could enable customs at Colombo and otherports to the fight cruel and unsustainable trafficking of elephant ivory (andthereby poaching in other countries) much more effectively.
Sri Lanka has an incredible amount ofbiodiversity and is home to countless endemic species. From its lizards to itstortoises, from tarantulas to the fish shooting through its waters: all ofthese animals play a vital part in their ecosystem and/or the livelihoods ofmany of the most vulnerable populations of Sri Lanka.
The country has a duty to protect notonly its citizens but also its wildlife: and CITES is a tool that can stopwildlife trafficking and prevent these animals from ending up as pets ordelicacies on the fast track to extinction. The eyes of the world will be onColombo in May and June: if all of Sri Lanka's proposals are voted through, itmeans taking another step forward on the path to protection.
▪ CITES Secretariat (2012). CITES Trade – A Snapshot.
▪Convention on BiologicalDiversity. Sri Lanka – Country Profile.Retrieved from: https://www.cbd.int/countries/profile/default.shtml?country=lk
▪ IUCN (2018). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.Retrieved from: https://www.iucnredlist.org
▪Lister,A., & Bahn, P. (2007). Mammoths. Giants of the Ice Age. Revised Edition.
▪Scanlon, J. E. (2016). CITES and wildlife trade – how CITES worksand how it links to wildlife tourism. CITES Secretary-General's keynoteaddress on Wildlife and Tourism at Colombo, Sri Lanka. Retrieved from: https://www.cites.org/eng/news/sg/keynote_address_cites_secretary_general_colombo_sri_lanka_25012016
▪Weerakoon, D. (2012). A Brief Overview of the Biodiversity of SriLanka. The National Red List 2012 of Sri Lanka, Ministry of Environment, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Dennis Mombauer currently lives in Colombo as a freelance writer and researcher on climate change and education. He focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation and sustainable urban development as well as on autism spectrum disorder in the field of education. Besides articles and research, he has published numerous works of fiction in German and English.