CITES: Looking back on a journey of emotion and reasoning

CITES: Looking back on a journey of emotion and reasoning

It’s hard to forget the day I arrived in Thailand. On every corner smells emanated from street vendors cooking a variety of dishes from enticing Thai noodles to spicy cockroaches. The whir of tuk-tuks and motorcycles came from unexpected directions, as drivers sped down sidewalks to avoid traffic jams. Bangkok pushed my senses to new levels, and while it was hard to ignore its attractions, our group of five graduate students from F&ES was on a mission. Our destination: the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES).

The first day of CITES CoP16 was a celebration, not only for the opening of the meeting, but also to observe the 40th anniversary of CITES. CITES was drafted by members of IUCN in 1963, after the negative impacts were recognized from the unregulated trade of animal and plant species. The text of the Convention was agreed upon 10 years later, becoming one of the first multilateral environmental agreements.

Armed with boxes of children’s books, stickers, and collages of photos from over 120 countries, our group was part of a global campaign to gain support for the protection of five shark and two manta ray species. The Yale booth drew a lot of attention from NGOs, observers, journalists and country representatives. Delegates were eager to see their country’s flag among the photos covering the walls of the booth. Others were drawn to the booth because they recognized the star character of the campaign, Shark Stanley. Two of our group’s members started the Shark Stanley campaign as part of a collaboration effort for an F&ES course on international organizations and conferences. The rest of us were excited to join their campaign, which had quickly grown over the few months leading up to CoP16. I dare not hesitate to say that Shark Stanley is officially an “international sensation.”

The overwhelming success of the Shark Stanley campaign is evident, not only because the campaign received support from over 130 countries, but also because of its creators’ unique approach to gain support by linking a charismatic character to a species that is often, and unnecessarily, feared. Our group and supporters gained an emotional attachment to the characters of the Shark Stanley campaign. However, emotion was not limited to this campaign. While it appeared almost advantageous for the accepted shark and manta ray proposals, it was emotion that led the support against some others. The proposal to change the listing of the polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I was not accepted. Although a listing on Appendix I requires more stringent protection for species threatened with extinction, the scientific evidence names climate change as the culprit for the reduced numbers of polar bears, not trade.

Throughout the discussion of the polar bear proposal, Parties were reminded that the decision should not be based on emotions. Still, it was hard to ignore my childhood memories of those cute, fuzzy polar bear cubs featured in Coca-Cola ads, or the more recent images from Planet Earth of a polar bear being trapped on a giant floating iceberg after days of unsuccessfully searching for food. Despite my strong urge to argue the protection of these species with whatever tool is available, I must remember the purpose of CITES – to protect species from trade, not climate change. The case of the polar bear is a clear example of why it is important to make ethical judgments based on scientific research and reasoning, rather than emotion.

It was rewarding to see the discussions at CITES remain true to the agreement’s provisions and rules of procedures – especially through the establishment of scientific advisory boards to investigate data and research leading to the support for or against proposals. In fact, this is why CITES is often viewed as one of the most successful international environmental agreements, and despite my mixed emotions about the polar bear proposal, this was the reason all of the Appendix II listing proposals were passed for the species of the Shark Stanley campaign.

Our team was ecstatic that the shark and manta ray proposals were passed because this was the result of many months of hard work, and similar proposals had not passed at previous CoPs. There was also celebrations on the plenary floor, with applause and shouts of excitement from some attendees, followed by a rush of “we succeeded” Tweets, posts and press releases – reactions I never thought I would witness at a CoP. However, there was also some criticism. While the species are now more protected at the international level, as reminded by a few at the conference, we actually failed in initially protecting these species, because a CITES listing confirms that Parties did not appropriately regulate the trade of these species to prevent them from becoming threatened, endangered, and in some cases extinct.

Feeling a bit torn in emotions over the listing of a species and the actual need to list a species (i.e., a “failure”), I begin to wonder what we can learn from these experiences at CITES. Overall, scientists are key players in the species proposals, but too often scientific research is questioned or dismissed, therefore preventing any necessary precautionary action before a listing becomes the only available choice.

So what is the reason for these “failures?” I think it is simply a lack of understanding. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to bridge the gap between stakeholders and scientists. If you watch the Daily Show’s interview with Republican Strategist, Noelle Nikpour, you may laugh or, if you are yourself a scientist, become frustrated. But more importantly you will get a glimpse into the type of misunderstanding that exists between scientists and non-scientists. Personally, I understand the challenges of translating complex information to others without a scientific background. But as scientists, it is our duty to help others understand. It is also the duty of non-scientists to ask questions and rely on the scientific community’s commitment to ethical reporting and dissemination. This has proven beneficial in settings like the CITES CoPs, where scientific advisory committees are given the roles to find and disseminate data, and Parties can choose to become involved with the advisory committees or rely upon the information the committees provide.

Looking back, CITES has been a journey of emotion and reasoning, and sometimes, emotional reasoning. I now understand the long, and often stressful days delegates undergo at international conferences. I can better grasp the types of collaboration that take place to gain support and build relationships between Parties and also how non-party attendees work together to gain support for promoting action. I have reconfirmed the need of science to help understand underlying issues of trade by translating often-difficult information into a transparent form that can be utilized for decisionmaking.

Although I’ve also learned that it’s not always easy being a scientist in the midst of a debate, the ultimate reward for attending CITES is my new understanding of why international environmental agreements are needed. Best described by John Scanlon, Secretary-General, “CITES connects international commitments with national action.” Together the world can learn from the successes of CITES by honoring the roles of an agreement, utilizing information from the scientific community, and building collaboration and learning from all stakeholders involved in the process – whether they are policymakers, representatives of NGOs, or even students from Yale.