May 23rd, 2019, the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will come to Sri Lanka. 3,000 delegates will arrive from all over the globe to discuss the next steps in combatting wildlife trafficking and the poaching of endangered species. Much work has been done in the three years since the last conference, and a total of 57 proposals have been submitted.
Out of these, Sri Lanka has submitted or co-submitted nine, almost 16% of the total number of proposals. It is the single country with the most submissions for COP18 (only the European Union has submitted more), and it sends a strong signal: Sri Lanka is committed to preserve its wealth of wildlife and its unique biodiversity.
Reptile Smuggling out of Sri Lanka
Four of the proposals concern endemic species 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 documented sales, auctions, and online adverts for these species has increased in recent years. They are sold mainly on the European pet market in countries like Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Spain, or Russia, and in the US, and can command high prices for single specimens or breeding pairs.
The lucrativeness of the trade incentivizes poachers and traffickers and seriously threatens these animals. The ten sub-species of lizards named in Sri Lanka’s proposals are already either on the National Red List, the IUCN’s Red List, or both, as they are highly vulnerable due to their small populations and limited ranges.
Another reptile joins the lizards in another of Sri Lanka’s proposals, this one co-authored with India: the Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans). Just like the lizards, it is endemic to Sri Lanka as well as parts of India and Pakistan. 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 for 11% 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 the species as vulnerable, and since the tortoises have a low population recovery potential, it might rapidly slide toward extinction if unsustainable trafficking continues.
Sri Lankan customs have not been able to stop exports of these animals, but their placement on the CITES appendix I would increase greater pressure on import markets in Europe and elsewhere and help protect these species.
Overfishing around Sri Lanka
Five of Sri Lanka’s proposals concern reptiles: another three revolve around fish. Since oceanic ecosystems are not restricted by land boundaries or borders, all these proposals are co-authored with other nations.
They comprise two species of guitarfish, two species of Mako sharks, and two species of white-spotted wedgefish, all of which are categorized as either vulnerable or endangered on the IUCN Red
List. However, the case is different than it is with the reptiles. Sri Lanka and the co-proponents do not intend to stop all trade with these animals: they just want to save them from overexploitation and unsustainable fishing.
Accordingly, they do not advocate for these fish to be placed on appendix I, which would prohibit any international commercial trade, but instead on appendix II, which regulates and monitors their trade. This could allow these species to replenish and thrive again while still keeping fishery livelihoods intact and allowing for the use of oceanic ecosystem resources.
Keeping Tarantulas in Sri Lanka
Five Sri Lankan proposals for reptiles, 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 are up for appendix II protection: and in fact, this genus of Tarantula occurs nowhere else than in these two countries.
Poecilotheria species are the only tarantulas that are completely arboreal, which means two things: they live in trees, and they are greatly threatened by habitat loss. These tarantulas are also common to very common as pets and, like the lizards, often appear in Europe, Russia, or the US, where they can command high prizes. They are popular for their bright coloration and size, but since they don’t breed well, many of the specimens on the market are sourced from the wild.
As these tarantula species reproduce slowly and are already threatened through deforestation, the pet trade with them needs to be stopped from reaching unsustainable levels. To this end, Sri Lanka has proposed to include them in CITES appendix II alongside the guitarfish, sharks, and wedgefish.
Ivory Trafficking through Sri Lanka
The much-discussed protection of the extinct woolly mammoth (which was proposed by Israel) is of concern for Sri Lanka for a different reason, and not merely because of the enormous cultural significance of elephants on the island.
Ten million mammoths are estimated to be conserved in the melting arctic permafrost, and selling their ivory causes no immediate harm. However, since elephant and mammoth ivory are very similar, their trade opens a loophole, as elephant ivory may simply be passed off as mammoth ivory.
Since only around 5% of Sri Lankan elephants are tuskers, they have never been an important source of ivory, and Sri Lankan elephants are more threatened by habitat loss and human-animal conflict. But Sri Lanka finds itself in another role here: it may not export or important significant quantities of elephant ivory, but it facilitates the trade.
Sri Lanka is a strategic global hub for all kinds of goods, including elephant and mammoth ivory. The inclusion of the woolly mammoth in appendix II could enable customs at Colombo and other ports to the fight cruel and unsustainable trafficking of elephant ivory (and thereby poaching in other countries) much more effectively.
Step by Step to Protection
Sri Lanka has an incredible amount of biodiversity and is home to countless endemic species. From its lizards to its tortoises, from tarantulas to the fish shooting through its waters: all of these animals play a vital part in their ecosystem and/or the livelihoods of many of the most vulnerable populations of Sri Lanka.
The country has a duty to protect not only its citizens but also its wildlife: and CITES is a tool that can stop wildlife trafficking and prevent these animals from ending up as pets or delicacies on the fast track to extinction. The eyes of the world will be on Colombo in May and June: if all of Sri Lanka’s proposals are voted through, it means taking another step forward on the path to protection.