top of page
  • Noeleen Smyth

LONGREAD: How Covid-19 and the current impacts we face are linked to the global trade in wildlife

In this special guest blog, NOELEEN SMYTH PhD, CITES Scientific Authority for Ireland, reflects on current challenges relating to the global implementation of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES).

“Counting the rivets while our plane crashes down…”

A brown scaly creature with small features and a long tail curled up in some green grass
Endangered species...a pangolin curling in on itself in the Philippines

Natural capital and the wildlife trade

In the 1980s, the eminent Stanford biologists Paul and Anne Elrich gave us the example of 'rivets on an airplane' as a metaphor for living species in ecosystems. Our very existence depends on the natural capital provided for us through the world’s stocks of natural assets, which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things (WFNC 2020).

Most people miss the fact that the human economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the economy of nature, which supplies us from our natural capital a steady flow of income that we can't do without". That income is from'ecosystem services' - such as keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, supplying fresh water, preventing floods, protecting our crops from pests and pollinating many of them, recycling the nutrients that are essential to agriculture and forestry, and on and on." (Elrich & Elrich,1981).

Plants and animals have always been an asset which has enabled human existence. There is and always has been a trade, a capital, in living things, long before we had any formal concepts or definitions for natural capital or sustainability. International trade in wildlife and wildlife products is currently estimated to be worth billions of dollars. The trade ranges from live animals and plants for the pet and horticultural industries to a huge array of wildlife products including food, leather goods, cosmetics, perfumes, food supplements, cultural items, musical instruments, timber, tourist curios and medicines (CITES 2020, Smyth et. al 2017).

Regulating wildlife trade

The first modern global biodiversity convention to recognise the need for regulating international trade in wild species is CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora) also known as the Washington Convention - the first text of the convention was agreed by over 80 countries in Washington DC in 1973.

This was originally in response to the dramatic decline of the American alligator and a number of orchid species due to over-exploitation in trade. CITES entered into force globally on July 1st, 1975 and the first Conference of the Parties (CoP) regulated trade in some familiar and iconic species such as Madagascar lemurs, tree ferns, and cycads. Today over 183 countries (or parties) have agreed to enforce and uphold the Convention which regulates trade in rare and endangered species of wild plants and animals. (CITES 2020).

Today over 30,000 plant and 6,000 animal species and subspecies are listed in the three different CITES lists or appendices (CITES 2020, Clarke et al. 2016). The CITES appendices are labelled I, II & III.

  • Appendix I species are those directly threatened with extinction and the international movement of these species is only permitted for conservation purposes e.g. gorilla, elephant, rhino and from the plant kingdom, slipper orchids.

  • Appendix II species are those which are not immediately threatened with extinction, but for which international trade in them has to be regulated to ensure their sustainability in the wild e.g. most orchid species, cacti, rosewood timbers, coral species etc. The majority of trade in CITES-listed species in Europe are species listed in Appendix II, the bulk of which is made up of a small number of species such as snowdrops, alligator, raw corals and wild cherry (UNEP-WCMC 2018).

  • Appendix III species are species where countries seek international co-operation to monitor international trade in one of their native species. A country can notify parties of this and an Appendix III listing can happen at any time e.g. Pine (Pinus koriansus) from the Russian Federation, Indian Weasels (Mustela spp.) To include a species in Appendix I or II, a two-thirds majority of the 183 parties to the Convention is required, and this can only happen at a CITES Conference of the Parties meeting which happens every three years. The last one, CoP 18, was held in Geneva, Switzerland in August 2018. CoP19 is due in Costa Rica in 2022 (CITES 2020).

Unlike other biodiversity conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which agree by consensus, CITES parties vote for each species listing which can be challenging but very emotive and exciting too. In CITES, consensus decisions are sought before any voting takes place but some of the more controversial issues stimulate debate and all parties are given the opportunity to comment for, or against, any proposal and the ultimate vote makes the decision of the Conference final. The decisions of the CoP come into effect 90 days after the meeting.

So CITES has in a sense both claws and teeth, which can often be lacking in the other biodiversity conventions where the decisions are solely based on consensus. CITES regulation of trade in species is in essence a system of managing the rivets to ensure the whole plane remains stable.

Wildife trade and Covid-19

The destruction of the forests and over-exploitation and trade in what’s commonly termed “bush meats” has, it seems, recently brought the world to a standstill with Covid-19, a virus known to occur in some wild mammals. Pangolins, one of the world most unusual species groups, are known to carry the coronavirus strain, along with some species of bats. Pangolins are very shy ant-eating mammals and very little is actually known of their ecology, and they have not set out to deliberately infect humans. These unusual, scaly creatures have become hugely popular in trade for both meat and traditional medicine in Asia, especially China (Challender et al. 2014).

The international demand for pangolin scales and meat was deemed unsustainable over fifteen years ago, so much so that all species were listed on CITES Appendix II in 1995. This listing meant that trade was supposed to be regulated through the CITES permit systems and permits issued only where trade could be shown to be non-detrimental to the species (a non-detriment finding – NDF). The legal and illegal trade volumes in pangolin showed no signs of declining even with the Appendix II CITES listing.

In 2016, nineteen countries, parties to the Convention, put forward proposals to further restrict the trade in all species of pangolin - to trade for “conservation purposes only” thus up-listing the pangolin to CITES Appendix I. This was agreed at the global meeting of CITES CoP17 in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2016. The new rules for pangolin trade for conservation purposes only came into force in January 2017, however, trade has still continued illegally and has decimated the pangolin populations in Asia and Africa.

A recent report by the UN Office on Drugs and Wildlife crime found that one illegal-trade seizure of pangolin scales in April 2019 consisted of 25 tonnes of African pangolin scales, this represented an estimated 50,000 dead pangolins, with a market value of seven million dollars (UNODC 2020). Given that all these are critically endangered animals produce just one or two offspring every year (Challender et al .2014), this illegal trade is catastrophic to both pangolins and humans. Pangolins do not directly pose any immediate threat to human health if left in their ecosystems, but a problem for all arises when they are poached from their natural habitat, butchered and sold illegally for meat or medicine, bringing the virus hazard closer to home (UNODC 2020).

Ireland’s role in international wildlife trade

Ireland was one of the parties in attendance the CoP17 in South Africa who voted in favour of up-listing all pangolin species to CITES Appendix I. CITES is implemented in Ireland and the other Member States of the EU through a series of strictures known as the Wildlife Trade Regulations which provide the necessary regulatory framework for the enforcement of the Convention in Ireland and the EU (CITES IE 2020).

As every vote counts in CITES, it is important that Ireland continues to support full implementation of the CITES Convention and participate in these international meetings in order to protect the “rivets” or species which appear in international trade and to ensure this trade is sustainable. Ireland has a formally designated Management Authority based at the National Parks and Wildlife Service, a Scientific Authority (author) and an enforcement focal point (Revenue & Customs) (CITES IE 2020).

These authorities aim to ensure imports or exports of CITES-listed species to and from Ireland are sustainably harvested and traded. Ireland is also represented at EU CITES Scientific Review Group (SRG) and EU CITES Management Expert meetings in Brussels which monitors and manages all CITES listed species trade into and out of the EU. Ireland submits reports on our trade in CITES-listed species to the CITES Secretariat in Geneva and this trade data is openly accessible on the CITES trade database (CITES Trade 2020).

Seeing the wood from the trees

Ireland is also part of the EU CITES SRG working group on timber and trees. Forest ecosystems are where our true vulnerabilities lie, the lungs of the planet are being lost at alarming rates and degradation of tropical forests are of global concern. As well as being home to over 80% of our biodiversity, tropical forest loss and degradation also have implications for climate change, hydrology, nutrient cycling and natural resource availability. The world’s forests are in serious danger with alarming rates of deforestation (FAO & UNEP 2020). The World Bank estimates that a forest area of 1.3million square kilometres was lost between 1990 and 2016, equivalent to 800 football pitches every hour (World Bank 2016). The most recent global ecosystem report highlighted the urgent need to stem the tide of biodiversity loss and highlighted that efforts must be made to manage and restore the world forests (IPBES 2019).

Black chimpanzee gazes out of green jungle foliage
Chimpanzee in Ugandan forst by Francesco Ungaro via Unsplash

For trade in any CITES-listed tree species to occur in the EU Member States, forest management plans for that species are reviewed by the EU SRG. Details on the species population, harvesting and post harvesting monitoring to determine the sustainability of the species is a requirement. However, in the scrutiny of management plans for just one species we may not be “seeing the wood for the trees”, so to speak. In CITES we obsess over counting and monitoring individual species to ensure that the trade in that one CITES-listed species is sustainable, while the whole forest may be lost with less attention, as the majority of tree species are not listed on CITES.

In 2017, Ireland imported 34,000 m3 of sawn hardwood to a value €27.8million, with direct imports from the forests of Cameroon, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast (O’ Driscoll & Moore 2018). All of these countries' forest ecosystems are under major threat. The World Resources Institute reported earlier this year that the loss of tropical primary forests has persisted over the past decade. For the most recent years with available data (2016, 2017 and 2018) we experienced the three highest rates of primary forest loss since the turn of the century, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo nearly doubling its rate of primary forest loss between 2010 and 2018 (WRI 2020).

Global concerns about the illegal trade of rosewood timber which accounted for 35% of all illegal wildlife trade (UNODC 2016) has prompted many countries with rosewood species to put them forward for listing on CITES appendices. Some of the newly listed species were highlighted as those associated with the west African “blood timber” trade (Clarke et al. 2016). Often when a particular tree species is listed in the CITES appendices, the trade immediately switches to another 'lookalike' species.

This situation has occurred many times in CITES, most recently with the need for genus CITES listing of the main Rosewood genus Dalbergia and all its species (CoP 17 Prop 55). Since the genus listing for Dalbergia, the trade has already shifted to other genera also known to have rose or pink coloured durable timbers such as Pterocarpus, with only two species listed in the CITES Appendices, the others currently being overharvested. (Lavorgna et al. 2018 & Winfield et al. 2016, EIA 2016). In many cases, by the time a particular species comes to the attention of the CITES community for listing, it can be effectively extinct in the wild e.g. the Mulanje Cedar (Widdringtonia whytei) a critically endangered endemic to Malawi only recently listed on CITES Appendix II at CoP 18 in Geneva. (CoP18 Prop 50).

Future outlook

It is easy to become despondent about where we are and the dire situation we find ourselves in. Our only hope is that through the huge global impacts of Covid-19, the links between wild animals, habitats and human health have been hugely highlighted and the importance of managing wildlife and wildlife trade has been brought home to us all.

Our current pandemic crisis demonstrates the necessity that threats to human health must now be accounted for in all ecosystem valuations. Human, animal, plant and ecosystem health are truly interdependent, emphasising the need and value of the “One Health” approach highlighted by the UN resolution of 2017 to encourage us towards an integrated approach to foster cooperation between environmental conservation and the human health, animal health and plant health sectors (UNEP 2017).

2020 is indeed a year of forced reflection, opportunity and solutions. It is both hoped and expected that we will “Build Back Better” and the world can signal a strong will for a global framework that will “bend the curve” on biodiversity loss for the benefit of humans and all life on Earth (CBD 2020).

Over forty years on, CITES is still very relevant and has a major role to play in monitoring and managing trade in wild species, through expanding the number of species listings, enforcement and tackling illegal wildlife trade. Ireland as a party to this Convention plays an important role at the discussion tables and forums in CITES at the EU and global levels, adding our voice to vote and ensure a sustainable and healthy future for us all - making sure those rivets are secure and our plane stays in the air.

About the Author: Dr. Noeleen Smyth is a Biodiversity & Conservation Botanist at the National Botanic Gardens (OPW), Glasnevin, Dublin 9. She acts as the CITES Scientific Authority for Ireland, and represents Ireland as a member of the EU CITES Scientific Review Group and the EU CITES working group timber and trees.

Thanks to Irish CITES Management Authority: Rosanna Kearns & Orlando Verrecchia.

CITES queries can be directed to the CITES Management Authority, National Parks and Wildlife Service, 90 North King Street, Dublin 7, D07 N7CV, Ireland.

References & Further Information

CBD 2020. International Day for Biodiversity. Our solutions are in Nature.

Challender, D., Waterman, C., Baillie, J., 2014. Scaling up pangolin conservation. In: IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group Conservation Action Plan, Zoological Society of London, London, UK.

CITES Trade 2020.

Ehrlich, P. and A. Ehrlich. 1981. Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species.  Random House, New York

Clarke, G., Hargreaves, S., Rutherford, C., Smith, M. & Smyth, N. (authors alphabetical) in Willis, K.J. (ed.) 2017. State of the Worlds Plants Report 2016 pp64-69. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. ISBN 978-1-84246-628-5.

EIA. 2016. The Hongmu Challenge: A briefing for the 66th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, January 2016. Environment Investigation Agency London.

FAO and UNEP. 2020. The State of the World’s Forests 2020. Forests, biodiversity and people. Rome. DOI:

IPBES. 2019. Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science- Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

Lavorgna A., Rutherford C., Vaglica V., Smith M. J. and Sajeva M. 2018. CITES, wild plants, and opportunities for crime. Eur. J. Crim. Policy Res. 24: 269-288.

O Driscoll, E & Moore, 2018. UNECE Forestry & Timber Market Report for Ireland 2018.

Smyth, N., Dhanda, S., Williams, C, Cable, S., Ralimanana, Simpson, R., & Clarke, G. in Willis, K.J. (ed.) 2017. Plant Conservation Policies & International Trade. State of the Worlds Plants Report 2017.pp78-85. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. ISBN: 978-1-84246-647-6.

UNEP 2017. Environment and Health. UNEP/EA.3/Res.4/2017


EU Wildlife Trade 2016: Analysis of the European Union and candidate countries’ annual reports to CITES 2016.

UNODC 2020. Wildlife Crime: Pangolin scales, 2020. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

UNODC 2016. World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species.

WFNC 2020. World forum on Natural Capital.

Winfield K., Scott M. and Grayson C. 2016. Global Status of Dalbergia and Pterocarpus Rosewood Producing Species in Trade. In: GlobalEye (ed.), Seventeenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties. CITES, Johannesburg.

WRI 2020. World Resources Institute Forest Experts 2020. 10 Big Changes for Forests Over the Last Decade

178 views0 comments


bottom of page