African Hunting Gazette – 23-4 2018
The Wildlife Game
CITES and Lions – It’s Not About Science!
By John Ledger

A new open access publication sheds interesting light on the inner workings of CITES, and how decisions ostensibly based on science are actually made on political and ethical grounds. The furore around the hunting of ‘Cecil’ the Zimbabwean lion created the impetus for many animal rights groups to involve themselves in lion matters, which they probably had previously not bothered with. The account of how two failed attempts to ‘uplist’ lions onto CITES Appendix 1 had completely different outcomes makes for a very insightful take on how the CITES ‘Wildlife Trade Police Force’ actually operates.

Bauer et al. (2018) have described the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild flora and fauna (CITES) as the modern equivalent of the Roman arena. Their paper can be downloaded from the link below, and you are encouraged to read the full version.

Insert text box near start of article


Bauer H, Nowell K, Sillero-Zubiri C, Macdonald DW. Lions in the modern arena of CITES. Conservation Letters.2018; e12444. 10.1111/conl.12444

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Lions have often been discussed under the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species of wild flora and fauna (CITES). While CITES decisions on
species’ trade regimes are ostensibly based on science, species data are often inconclusive and political considerations inevitably determine outcomes. We present the context of lion conservation and the technical and political processes of CITES to illuminate how a failed uplisting proposal nonetheless resulted in an unprecedented trade restriction as well as conservation initiatives beyond the CITES trade function.
We conclude on the limitations of science to guide future directions of CITES debates, leaving politics and ethics to shape decision making.

How CITES works

With 183 government signatories (‘Parties’), nearly every country in the world is a member of CITES, which is stronger than many other environmental conventions because it can impose restrictions (such as trade sanctions) on any Party. It is essentially a trade convention, but is also an important policy instrument for wildlife conservation by affecting domestic trade and nontrade conservation issues through ‘resolutions’, ‘decisions’, and other mechanisms agreed by consensus or by two-thirds majority vote. Although CITES is legally binding on States, its mechanisms can only be fully implemented when specific national (also called ‘domestic’ in CITES parlance) measures have been adopted for that purpose.

CITES is based on the principles that wildlife trade is beneficial for human well-being, that trade is not detrimental to the traded resource, and that sustainable use should be the norm, unless evidence suggests otherwise. This assumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is somewhat modulated by the ‘precautionary principle’, but for the many species that are not threatened by trade, CITES is irrelevant to their conservation.

Species must meet trade and biological criteria for listing on CITES Appendix I; the trade criterion is that the species ‘is or may be affected by trade.’ The biological criteria are partly aligned with the IUCN Red List Criteria for Endangered; they use very similar thresholds, but they do not reflect IUCN’s elaborate, structured, and transparent guidance on how to use data deficiency uncertainty, the precautionary principle, and projections of future declines. These can be used in CITES proposals, and Parties are free to interpret such arguments as they see fit ‘in the best interests of the conservation of the species’ either for or against trade. IUCN and TRAFFIC refer only to CITES criteria in the scientific evaluation of every proposal that they publish before every CoP.

At Conferences of Parties (CoPs), Party delegations sit in the front of the large meeting space from which observers are excluded. Observers are arrayed behind the Parties and can ask to speak (time permitting); they are sometimes included at the discretion of the session Chair when forming working groups where most of the negotiations take place. However, while separate in appearance, in practice, observers wield considerable influence at CITES. Some States have large official delegations of seasoned diplomats supported by experts; others have only a few civil servants led by a Director of Wildlife. Most delegations have voting instructions on topics of interest to their State; their freedom to manoeuvre is limited and depends on their ability to communicate with decision makers back home. For other topics, they follow their own judgment, partly relying on other Parties and observers to inform them.

Among the observers, there is a similar diversity; most have strong opinions and lobby Parties to adopt their views. Activities start long before the CoP when lobbyists work in countries where they have a vested interest to influence national position statements and voting instructions, but it reaches a frenzy at the CoP itself. Their advocacy is sometimes directly aimed at Party delegates, but more often indirectly by addressing their constituencies through events, reports, and especially the media.

Many NGOs imply to the public that wildlife trade is generally ‘bad’; sometimes they mix their communication about CITES with issues tangential to international trade, such as animal welfare, cruelty to animals, poaching, pollution, or domestic trade. User groups (like associations involved in trade, hunting, or medicinal use) also use CITES for their agendas to promote trade, arguing that trade restrictions distort market forces that give monetary value to species that in turn can be used to support their conservation. However, this ‘kill to save’ message is complex and less easily communicated through mass media.

In the CITES context, it is not uncommon for NGOs to draft interventions or ‘ghost-write’ documents submitted by Parties; documents submitted by governments are not given individual authorship, and government authorities with limited resources and many other duties often rely upon civil society to assist them with the many burdens placed upon them by the Convention.

CITES and lions

The lion Panthera leo is listed as ‘Vulnerable’ in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; the regional population of West Africa as ‘Critically Endangered’ and the sole remaining population outside Africa, in India, is listed as Endangered. Major declines in range and numbers have been reported and many authors have argued for increased conservation investments for this species. There is growing political engagement in lion conservation, especially since the public indignation expressed about the ‘canned lion’ practice, and the hunting of ‘Cecil’. The power of the Internet has enabled rapid dissemination of ‘outrage’ and ‘disgust’ in an information cascade that inevitably influences politicians and the media.

Threats to lions are well documented; the top three are not trade-related: prey depletion, habitat encroachment, and conflict over livestock depredation. Two additional threats are trade-related: trophy hunting and lion bone and parts trade, but their impact is debatable and doubtless varies from place to place. Trophy hunting can secure lion habitat and provide community benefits. Despite some detailed studies there are knowledge gaps regarding the consequences of trophy hunting for lion conservation, and irreconcilable differences of opinion on ethical aspects. Ethical arguments are not part of CITES criteria, but they are part of the wider discussions on sustainable use from both perspectives (duty to protect animal life vs. duty to provide human livelihoods.

On the users’ end of the lion stakeholder spectrum, two industries participate in CITES debates: the trophy hunting industry (led by organizations such as Safari Club International and professional hunters’ associations) and the South African lion breeding and canned hunting industry (led by the South African Predator Association). This creates a strong alliance between these organizations and States where trophy hunting is part of their economies and wildlife conservation management regimes (including South Africa and Tanzania, among others).

Many animal welfare organizations oppose lion trophy hunting on ethical grounds (like the Humane Society International and the Campaign Against Canned Hunting) and have developed close relationships with some States that prohibit lion trophy hunting (including Kenya and Botswana). They are aware that ethical arguments do not carry weight in CITES and so their technical support to States is focused on biological and trade information.

Some conservation organizations take a neutral position, assisting policymakers to make science-based decisions (to the degree that is possible in the absence of conclusive data). In the CITES context, IUCN and TRAFFIC are the leaders of this group; together they produce analyses of proposals to change trade rules for species, as well as many other reports and contributions. The work of these organizations is perhaps most relied upon by the major Western governments, among others the United States and European Union.

Lions have been much discussed under CITES, which categorizes species in three appendices by the level of protection afforded from international trade. Species in Appendix I are threatened with extinction and no commercial international trade is permitted for wild specimens. Species in Appendix II are not necessarily threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade is regulated; commercial international trade is permitted at the discretion of the exporting Party, which must determine scientifically that such trade will not be detrimental to the species’ survival and issue a permit for each shipment. Populations may be ‘split-listed’ as is the case with lions; since 1977 African populations fall under the family-wide Appendix II listing for all Felidae not listed in Appendix I, where the lion population in India is included.

At CoP 13, in Bangkok, Thailand in 2004, Kenya proposed an uplisting of all African lion populations to Appendix I; proponents knew it would face strong opposition from Parties with significant lion trophy hunting but probably hoped to find middle ground. Behind the scenes, Range States and major stakeholders negotiated alternatives that Kenya presented in its withdrawal statement. It consisted of agreement on a process of Lion Conservation Strategy formulation to reverse or at least halt lion declines. This was a process that never reached a full conclusion before being made redundant by the decisions at CoP 17.

The momentum resulting from the ‘Cecil’ saga, and new evidence that lion populations continued to decline, prompted a coalition of Range States to submit a new proposal to transfer all African lion populations to Appendix I for CoP 17, held in Johannesburg, South Africa. Although Kenya supported the proposal, it was felt that other perhaps less polarizing countries should take the lead and so Niger, together with Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Togo submitted the proposal.

The proposed uplisting would not have affected captive lion bone exports, as Appendix I species bred in captivity for commercial purposes are treated under CITES as belonging to Appendix II. Also, wild-caught trophy-hunted specimens could still be exported since such trade is considered non-commercial. However, the major trophy exporting States and their allies in the hunting industry felt strongly that uplisting would lead to curtailment of lion trophy hunting. Parties have in the past restricted trophy exports through quotas for Appendix I species (like leopard, Panthera pardus), and there was a distinct possibility that domestic legislation of some Parties would trigger similar lion trophy import restrictions. Parties may enact ‘stricter domestic measures’ for CITES-listed species at any time. In the two years prior to CoP17 the major importers in Europe and the United States had banned trophy imports from West and Central African countries and tightened conditions for allowable imports from East and Southern African countries. The United States banned imports of lion trophies from captive origin completely.

Before CoP 17, both the United States and the EU had published their negotiating positions. The United States supported the proposal; the EU opposed but was supportive of split-listing, transferring lion populations of West and Central Africa to Appendix I. The EU delegation was bound by this European Council decision to vote against the proposal, but within that stricture free to find compromises. Knowing that the criteria were met only under certain interpretations, and knowing that a block with 28 votes did not support the proposal, most informed participants anticipated that a compromise would be negotiated. Indeed, at the CoP the uplisting proposal was only briefly discussed in plenary and then referred to a working group consisting of proponent countries, other Range States, major trophy importing States and NGO observers, a typical process for high-profile proposals. Since the original proposal did not emphasize the potential link to Asian big cats, the working group did not include key actors in tiger conservation or in lion bone trade.

The working group found limited support among Parties for uplisting and rejected split-listing as too unwieldy. The group looked for other protection instruments under the current Appendix II listing, and with a great deal of unofficial input from NGO observers came up with a consensus approach comprising two components. The first was a set of Decisions intended to stimulate various conservation initiatives, including initiatives unrelated to trade such as surveys and conflict mitigation, all of which had been previously discussed at a Range State meeting convened by the Convention on Migratory Species in Uganda. The second was an annotation to prohibit commercial trade in African lion parts and derivatives, such as would have been accomplished under an uplisting. Initial discussion favoured a zero quota for all lion parts, wild and captive-bred, but this was unacceptable to South Africa, which argued that there is no evidence yet for an impact of trade in bones of captive origin on wild populations.

There may have been sufficient support for the annotation to pass if put to a vote, but for a variety of political reasons, and in pursuit of consensus, the annotation was revised to a zero quota for lion parts and derivatives (except skins) of wild origin for commercial purposes, and a quota to be set by South Africa and communicated to the CITES Secretariat for bones, bone pieces, bone products, claws, skeletons, skulls, and teeth for commercial purposes sourced from its captive lions. South Africa set that quota about a year later at 800 skeletons, which roughly corresponds to the number of hunting trophies from captive origin and therefore suggests implicitly that lions would not be purposely bred for their bones. It is noteworthy that no other Range State sought to retain an option on future quotas, presumably indicating that none has any intention to start a captive lion industry.

Although not a proponent, South Africa was defeated at CoP 17 on the elephant and rhino proposals it supported; Parties may have been reluctant to risk a repeat performance and may also have wished to avoid a plenary debate that could have undone the entire compromise. South Africa is widely admired for its domestic conservation achievements, and in the absence of compelling evidence of negative conservation impacts, Parties may have judged it impolitic to issue such a direct rebuke to the venue host.

Because of the potential threat it poses to wild lions, South Africa’s quota allowance is the controversial element in an otherwise broadly supported compromise to curtail trade through Appendix II annotation instead of a less politically palatable Appendix I uplisting. Also, the annotation permitting trade in commercially farmed lion bone is inconsistent with CITES language on tiger farming: “Parties with intensive operations breeding tigers on a commercial scale shall implement measures to restrict the captive population to a level supportive only to conserving wild tigers; tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives.”

Although the tiger is listed in Appendix I and the African lion in Appendix II, the intermingling of the two trades suggests a similar and consistent approach under CITES is warranted. The negotiators at CoP17 dealing with the lion listing were aware of this inconsistency, but in the absence of published evidence of a negative impact on trade in captive lion bones on wild lions, the compromise was considered the most viable option at the time.

In parallel, lion trophy hunting was the subject of an EU proposal on ‘harvest and export of hunting trophies’ that was also sent to the lion working group. It emerged much weaker, in the form of studies and capacity building among the subsidiary conservation initiatives. Separately, a Resolution was adopted on ‘Trade in hunting trophies of species listed in Appendices I and II’ which sets out general guidelines for exporting Parties to improve sustainable management of trophy hunting.

On the last day of CoP17, in the final plenary session, the Decisions drafted by the working group were adopted without further debate. The annotation is historic in two ways: it is the first successful attempt to revise a felid listing under CITES since listing guidance was adopted in 1994, and it is the first to restrict trade in captive-bred specimens.

The impact of policy changes on lion conservation status is hard to measure, due to the inherent difficulty of counting lions, time-lag in population response to threats, Red List assessment periodicity and problems of attribution in a sector with complex and dynamic cause-effect relations. If any, the impact of CITES decisions on lion conservation status would be measured over a period that spans two or three CoPs, by which time policy may already have changed. Market fluctuations are easier to monitor than lion numbers, but data on illegal trade are inherently problematic and even if we had reliable data, these could still be used for opposite arguments in the absence of consensus over causal links between trade and conservation status.

The uncertainty in data and the ambiguity in interpretation are unlikely to be resolved by science within a policy-relevant time frame; politics and ethics are likely to remain dominant forces in lion trade and conservation policy formulation.

Dr John Ledger is an independent consultant and writer on energy and environmental issues, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.