Just two weeks ago, on March 14 and 15, 2013, in southern Chad near the country’s border with Cameroon, poachers killed at least 86 elephants—maybe more. The victims included 33 pregnant females and 15n calves. The motive was ivory, for illegal trade.

Elephants, of course, aren’t the only animals being massacred today for their body parts. According to National Geographic, since 2011 killings of South African rhinos for their horns has increased 50 percent (nearly 5,000 percent since 2007). The horns are used in traditional Asian medicines.

The illegal wildlife trade has reached epic proportions and is now a big business, estimated to be worth billions of dollars annually. That’s why the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), created in 1975, has never been more important. When the triennial CITES conference closed in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 14, 2013, after accepting 55 proposals to protect plants and animals from overexploitation, conservationists and environmentalists had cause to celebrate.

But will these measures be too little too late?

Concern for elephants and rhinoceroses

Part conservation treaty and part trade treaty, CITES regulates the international trade of animal and plant species to ensure that such trade is not detrimental to the survival of wild populations. Currently 178 countries, including the United States, are parties to the treaty, which affords varying degrees of protection to more than 30,000 species of animals and plants. CITES decisions are legally binding and must be accompanied by enforcement measures and sanctions.

A record 668 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2012, up almost 50 percent from 2011. ©Don Martinson

This year, for the first time, at the Sixteenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Bangkok, strategies about on-the-ground actions to address the elephant poaching crisis and escalating illegal trade in ivory were adopted. Rules for trading in elephants or elephant products were thoroughly revised, modernized and strengthened—especially regulations that address how to use forensics, monitor ivory stockpiles and control the live elephant trade. An agreement to strengthen the African Elephant Fund and the African Elephant Action Plan was also adopted.

To crack down on rhinoceros-related crimes, the conference requested that countries prosecute offenders under legislation that carries strict penalties that will effectively deter such crimes. Countries where rhino poaching occurs are to submit horn samples from seized specimens to designated, accredited forensic laboratories. CITES parties were also asked to consider enacting stricter domestic measures to regulate the re-export of rhino horn products from any source and to develop and implement strategies to enhance community awareness of the economic, social and environmental impacts of illicit trafficking in wildlife. A CITES Rhinoceros Enforcement Task Force is to be created to come up with ways to improve international cooperation.

More regulations, but little real help

While CITES is working to make bigger strides against wildlife poaching, some would point out that such measures don’t address the larger, more complicated picture of why some animals are reaching the near-extinction mark. They say that CITES fails to address habitat loss, poverty or take a whole ecosystem approach to conservation. Another problem is that CITES does not explicitly deal with market demand. If the demand for ivory and rhinoceros horn, for example, remains high, poachers will always be able to find a way to supply it.

Approximately 25,000 African elephants are being killed every year, mostly for their ivory. Can they wait another year? ©Matt and Maggie Kareus

Too, CITES regulates and monitors trade by use of a “negative list,” which means that trade in all species is permitted and unregulated unless that species is on the list. In practice, then, this negative-list approach forces CITES signatories to concentrate on just a select few, leaving many species to be traded with neither constraint nor review. For example, several birds classified on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as threatened with extinction can be legally traded under CITES because their status has not been considered. Instead, if CITES used a “positive list” approach, only species evaluated and approved for such a list would be permitted in trade. This would lighten the review burden for CITES countries and prevent inadvertent legal trade threats to poorly known species.

The CITES conference in March capped its two-week meeting by including a mandate for countries with lucrative illegal ivory trades to submit time-bound plans to address the issue and make progress before next summer.

I’m just not sure the elephants can wait.

Do you think that the new CITES regulations adopted this month will prove to be useful tools in curbing the dramatic uptick in wildlife crimes?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy