Unfortunately, at the recent CMS conference, the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 remaining polar bears were not given the highest level of protection. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

From the tiny monarch butterfly to the immense wildebeest of Africa, many of the world’s animal species take on great migrations. Those epic travels may involve seasonal journeys of thousands of miles, traversing multiple countries. For them, our human political boundaries have no meaning. That’s why the United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) was created. It requires its 120 signatory nations to either put in place conservation strategies to sustainably manage migratory populations or—in the case of endangered species—ensure there is no taking.

The most recent meeting of the convention was held in Ecuador. It ended on Sunday, November 9, 2014. More than thirty-one species were approved for greater conservation measures.

But with so much current political unrest and resultant lack of wildlife oversight in so many of the CMS countries, are these international agreements just “paper protections”?

The annual monarch butterfly migration is epic, with travels from Mexico to Manitoba. ©John H. Gaukel

Addressing threats from entertainment, lead, and wind—but leaving lions in the lurch

More than 700 representatives from 119 countries attended the 11th United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals conference that recently took place in Quito, Ecuador. Held every three years, the CMS conference seeks to develop internationally recognized public policies and coordinate conservation measures among nations to protect migratory animals and their habitats. Some of this year’s conference agreements were:

• The top level of protection, Appendix I, was issued for the Cuvier’s beaked-whale (Ziphius cavirostris), a rarely seen cetacean that dives as deep as 1.86 miles below the water’s surface.

• Nations will work to pass laws to ban the capture of live whales and dolphins for use in entertainment venues and traveling shows.


One provision of the CMS states that the capture of live whales and dolphins for use in entertainment venues needs to be banned in all nations.

• Nations agreed to new protections for rays and sharks, especially for stopping the practice of finning, where sharks are caught and their fins cut off for use in soups in China.

• The use of lead ammunition should be decreased to stop the poisoning of migrating birds (although the United Kingdom opposed this move).

• For the first time, guidelines were established on how best to protect birds and bats from wind turbines and other forms of renewable energy.

A proposal to list the African lion was rejected due to a lack of data. ©Eric Rock

Unfortunately, polar bears, which have been recognized worldwide as in grave peril of going extinct, were not given the highest level of protection at the conference. The Norwegian proposal to safeguard the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 remaining polar bears garnered the animals only an Appendix II listing, which means that countries must work together to put in place conservation plans; as opposed to the stronger Appendix I listing, which requires strict protections, such as bans on hunting.

A proposal to list the African lion was rejected due to a lack of data.

Signing papers—while illegal charcoal sales and poaching continue

Today, wildlife crime is estimated to be worth between $7 billion and $23 billion per year. And it’s growing at a pace never before seen in recent history. A lot of it is due to political unrest and terrorist activities throughout the world.

For example, in East Africa, the illegal charcoal trade is having a major impact on fragile ecosystems, threatening the homes of birds and terrestrial mammals. Al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group responsible for the West Gate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013, is financing its activities with proceeds from illegal charcoal sales, and the scale of habitat loss has been reported as “alarming.”


Poaching continues. Last year, in northern Uganda, elephants were killed for their tusks to fund the purchase of weapons and support terrorist activities.

Last year, in northern Uganda, members of the Lords Resistance Army hunted down elephants and used their tusks to buy weapons and support their terrorist activities; and in Kenya, al-Shabaab is reported to have killed as many as two elephants every week in protected parks.

The November CMS conference culminated with the delegates signing a declaration, as well as with some new agreements that range from legally binding treaties to memoranda of understanding. While some say the convention can be a powerful vehicle that countries can use to beef up enforcement, increase pressure for stronger legislation, and work to combat wildlife crime, with so many of the signatory nations being war-torn and resource poor, I wonder who will be there to see that these promises are carried out.

Do you think the CMS conference results will prove to be a protective force for the world’s migratory species against escalating threats, or are they just more paper tigers?

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