The Fight against Wildlife Trafficking: CITES in Sri Lanka

February 15, 2019

From pangolins to elephants, fromtropical timber to birds and snakes: Wildlife trafficking is one of the largestillegal global trade sectors and generates billions of USD per year. Since1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Faunaand Flora (CITES) provides a framework for the sustainable trade of wildlifeand ecosystem products. The parties to the convention meet every three years,and the host for the 18th Conference of the Parties in 2019 is SriLanka, making it the second South Asian country to do so after India in 1981.

As a country rich in biodiversity,controlling and containing wildlife trade is of vital interest to Sri Lanka:livelihoods, ecosystems, and a growing eco-tourism sector all hinge on theconservation and sustainable use of the island’s unique flora and fauna.

Wildlife Trade under CITES

To date, 183 countries are party toCITES and have committed to its licencing system for the international trade ofover 5,800 animal and 30,000 plant species. Sri Lanka has joined the conventionon May 4th, 1979, as the 49th country world-wide and the8th country in Asia.

Many traded species are important totheir ecosystems and to the livelihoods of local communities. CITES attempts abalancing act between legal trade on the one hand and protecting endangeredspecies and vulnerable ecosystems on the other. Wildlife trade is alsoconnected to at least three of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: SDG14(Life below water), SDG15 (Life on land), and SDG16 (Peace, Justice &Strong Institutions).

From flowers to ivory carvings, liveanimals, trophies, skins, timber, medicinal products, perfume ingredients,ornamental plants, caviar, tourist curios, and many more products: wildlifetrade in flora and fauna is a vast industry. While in 1985, ten years after theinception of CITES, the convention tracked less than 200,000 transactions, thisnumber has multiplied to 1.2 million transactions in 2015. The CITES TradeDatabase records every import and export of listed species, complete withimporting and exporting country, quantity, and purpose, and it grows everyyear.

CITES divides the covered species intothree groups with descending levels of protection. Appendix I species are themost endangered and consequently the most protected ones. Because they arethreatened with extinction, any international commercial trade with them isprohibited. Sri Lanka is home to a number of species on appendix I, among themelephants, several species of whales, dugongs, pangolins, crocodiles, andturtles. Appendix II species are endangered or otherwise threatened, so CITESrequires permits for their export to monitor their trade and limit it tosustainable levels. The total trade volume of appendix II animals is USD350-530million per year, with the vast majority (62%) being reptiles. Finally,appendix III covers species whose trade is already regulated by a party to theconvention, but this party requires international cooperation to preventunsustainable or illegal exploitation.

An Island of Biodiversity

Sri Lanka has a wealth of wildlife,including flagship species such as the Asian elephant, leopards, and bluewhales. With around 7,500 plant and thousands of animal species (many of whichare endemic), it contains the highest concentration of species in Asia and hasbeen named (together with India’s Western Ghats) a global biodiversity hotspot.This means it has an incredible degree of biodiversity, but it also means thisbiodiversity is under threat: and illegal wildlife trade certainly contributes.

Currently, 27% of bird species, 66% ofamphibians, 56% of mammals, 49% of freshwater fish, and 59% of reptiles in SriLanka are threatened. While habitat destruction and climate change might bemajor drivers of ecosystem degradation and species extinction, wildlifetrafficking plays a huge part as well. It drives species to extinction and hashuge economic impacts: Wildlife and ecosystem tourism are booming in Sri Lanka,and many people depend on sustainable wildlife populations for theirlivelihoods.

Sri Lanka and the InternationalWildlife Trade

Only around 5% of Sri Lankan elephantsare tuskers: But even though Sri Lanka is not a source of the global “bloodivory” trade, the island is still a major hub for it and other wildlifetrafficking. The government is trying to send signals, for example when itdestroyed 359 pieces of seized African elephant ivory in 2016 or when itconfiscated 28 containers of Rosewood timber in 2014, but there are concernsthat these efforts are not enough. There is also a sizeable domestic illegaltrade in wildlife that does not fall under CITES provisions.

Existing Sri Lankan laws might notsuffice to address the international illegal wildlife trade. The Fauna andFlora Protection Ordinance as amended in 2009 includes provisions against theimport and export of elephants, tusks, and certain mammal species—however, onlyfew cases have been prosecuted under this law so far. While the country hasbeen a signatory to CITES for decades, it still lacks local regulations toenforce all aspects of the convention, making it difficult for customs toprosecute wildlife traffickers in many cases.

Towards a Sustainable Future

The 18th Conference of theParties to CITES starts on May 23rd in Colombo with over 3,000delegates from all over the globe. As CITES conferences only happen every threeyears, they are important meetings that cover numerous points of discussion:and the intersessional between COP17 and COP18 has been especially busy. Thereare 57 proposals regarding a range of species, including protecting the extinctwoolly mammoth (because illegal elephant ivory gets passed off as legal mammothivory revealed by melting permafrost), giraffes, four species of Sri Lankanreptiles, tiger spiders, Mako sharks, giant guitarfish, and wedgefish. Otheritems on the agenda are the most recent analysis of the Elephant TradeInformation System (ETIS), the wildlife markets in Laos and Madagascar, and theupcoming 2020 meeting of the parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity,which will decide on the biodiversity framework for the future.

As the host country, the world willlook to Sri Lanka to play its part in fighting wildlife trafficking andunsustainable wildlife trade. If Sri Lanka can stop illegal shipments to passthrough its harbours and curb the exploitation of ecosystems and the extinctionof species, not only the environment but also the people and the economy standto benefit.




▪CITES Secretariat (2019). Proposals for amendment of Appendices I and II - CoP18. Retrievedfrom:

▪ CITES Secretariat (2012). CITES Trade – A Snapshot.

▪ConservationInternational. Biodiversity Hotspots:Western Ghats and Sri Lanka. Retrieved from:

▪Convention on BiologicalDiversity. Sri Lanka – Country Profile.Retrieved from:

▪Food and AgricultureOrganization of the United Nations (1999). BiologicalDiversity in Sri Lanka. Retrieved from:

▪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:

▪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.

▪WWF/Dalberg (2012). Fighting illicit wildlife trafficking: Aconsultation with governments. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.

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About the Author
Dennis Mombauer

Dennis has close to a decade of experience working in research, and management and administration in the private sector as well as two years in coordination in the development sector. His research focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation, sustainable development, climate migration, and other topics related to climate change. He has published articles about these topics in numerous places, for example Earth Island Journal, Mongabay, The Environmental Blog, Daily FT, and Colombo Telegraph. He holds degrees in Education, English Studies, and Philosophy from the University of Cologne, Germany, and has additional qualifications in GIS mapping, video editing, translation, and publishing. ‍