The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, is an international treaty with 183 Parties–182 states plus the European Union. It is one of the oldest multilateral agreements to tackle international trade in wildlife and conservation concerns.
CITES Secretary-General, Ivonne Higuero is an environmental economist, who has been working on issues of sustainable development for more than 26 years. In this interview, she discusses the connection between wildlife trade and the COVID-19 pandemic, and what must be done to reduce the likelihood of future zoonotic disease outbreaks.
Broadly, what does CITES do?
CITES aims to keep the international trade of wild plants and animals legal, sustainable and traceable.
Its Parties take decisions to ensure that international trade of valuable wild species of plants and animals does not endanger their survival in the wild.
Why is illegal trade in wildlife such an important issue; and in what practical ways does it affect our lives?
Illegal wildlife trade has many negative consequences for human well-being and species conservation. When criminal actors trade in endangered species, they weaken entire ecosystems and they threaten essential links of the world’s biological diversity. Biodiversity loss is one of the greatest global threats in our time, and it also means a narrower genetic pool and therefore less resilience to resist diseases of any kind.
Criminal wildlife trafficking networks also undermine states’ abilities to tackle outbreaks of disease, because they force governments to divert human and financial resources that could be allotted to other needs.
What is the significance of wildlife trade in relation to the spread of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19?
Illegal wildlife trade contributes to habitat destruction, which removes necessary buffer zones between humans and wild fauna, making it more likely that animal pathogens come into contact with people. Specimens that are traded illegally are also much less likely to be sold or bought where sanitary standards are being properly enforced, making the spread of diseases more likely.
We know that many emerging infectious diseases in recent times have originated in wild animals. Many of them were not considered illegally-traded CITES-listed species. However, illegal wildlife trade flows will only make these episodes worse, by degrading or bringing people too close to animal habitats, and therefore contributing to the spread of diseases.
How does the United Nations help countries conserve species and protect biodiversity?
United Nations organizations and United Nations-affiliated conventions and agreements, such as CITES, the Convention on Biological Diversity or the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals, provide tools, resources, platforms, and expertise to governments around the world. Organizations such as the UN Environmental Programme help carry out and coordinate essential programmes in the field that contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals related to biodiversity. At the same time, CITES and other multilateral environmental agreements provide a global, legally-binding framework to conserve wildlife and biodiversity, while frequently contributing to build bridges between governments, the private sector and civil society, so that everyone can contribute to this common and essential mission.
What are some of the steps that need to be taken, to prevent the emergence and spread of diseases such as COVID-19?
Currently, there is a lot of discussion around the wildlife trade–both legal and illegal. It is indeed essential that international trade be fully regulated, and that national wildlife legislation and regulations be fully enforced. CITES parties must continue their work towards effective compliance with the Convention; and we have applauded all efforts to reinforce national implementation of CITES measures and local measures to enhance conservation of wild species, especially in key countries. Of course, this is only one part of the puzzle.
There is a need to have a better balance between humans and nature. This means stopping the destruction and degradation of habitats, deforestation and undesirable land conversion. We must raise the quality and enforcement of sanitary and phytosanitary standards and regulations; change unsustainable consumption and production patterns; rethink ways of connecting globally; and take many other actions to reduce risks that lead us to these global pandemics.
What’s your call to action?
The World Economic Forum found that over half of the world’s GDP is highly- or moderately-dependent on nature. Furthermore, the livelihoods of millions of people around the world rely on wildlife as a source of income and protein. Governments must rebuild post COVID-19 by investing in nature, in the compliance and enforcement of biodiversity-related conventions, in reducing the destruction and degradation of habitats and in the conservation and sustainable use of wild species to reduce the likelihood of future pandemics resulting from zoonotic diseases.