Held against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 19th Conference of Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in Panama could have put into place restrictions on the trade of the pangolin – a species that may have played a role in the emergence of the disease.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is commonly referred to as CITES.

However, the meeting of the 184 countries that are signatories to the agreement that aims to ensure that international trade in specimens does not threaten the survival of species, was unable to do this. The two-week conference concluded on November 25.

Earlier research suggested that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused Covid-19 might have possibly spilled over to humans from the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), a critically endangered species that is found from Indonesia to southern China. Even though no closely related coronaviruses were found in wild Sunda pangolins, multiple lineages of coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 were found in pangolins confiscated in China.

Current evidence indicates that the closest known progenitor of SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus species found in horseshoe bats. It is possible, therefore, that the virus might have spilled over from bats into pangolins during the course of wildlife trade, before entering humans at wild meat markets in the city of Wuhan in southern China.

No other group of mammals is as affected by illegal wildlife trade worldwide are the pangolins, a group of eight medium-sized, scale-covered mammals that feed almost exclusively on ants and termites.

At the CITES meeting, the United Kingdom had proposed amendments to a section of the multilateral agreement pertaining specifically to the wildlife trade in pangolins. It asked countries, in which the pangolin lives, to close their domestic markets for commercial trade in the species and products derived from it. However, China opposed this, insisting that the agreement only relates to international trade.

The People’s Republic of China is the number one destination country and consumer of illegal wildlife trade worldwide, particularly for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Studies report more than 210 mass seizures of pangolin products by domestic authorities amounting to over 90.5 tonnes of scales illegally trafficked into China since 2010.

The majority of these pangolins, as well as several other species of threatened wildlife, originate in Africa. A recent study estimates that anywhere between 400,000-2.7 million pangolins are hunted annually in Central African forests. The number of pangolins hunted has increased by more than 150% over the past four decades. Within Africa too, some species like the white bellied pangolin are most affected by trafficking of scales in terms of numbers of individuals impacted.

Despite CITES having put into place several prohibitions or restrictions intended to protect species threatened with extinction since it was ratified in 1973, the illegal trade in wildlife has ballooned. It is currently estimated to be valued at up to $23 billion annually, the fourth-largest form of illicit trade worldwide behind narcotics and arms. Wildlife populations globally have declined as a result, and several other threatened species have been pushed closer to extinction.

Products made from threatened species such as large cats, rhinos (horns), elephants (ivory), pangolins, live reptiles, fish, some invertebrates and timber continue to be illegally smuggled for trophies, ornaments, pets, food, entertainment and for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of CITES is that the agreement does not oblige any country to do anything and there are no binding legal penalties on countries for non-compliance.

The current edition of CITES seems to have advanced the protection of several species such as sharks and other marine species such as sea cucumbers and stingrays, by “uplisting them” to require countries to ensure a legalised, sustainable trade in these species.

However, hunting rather than international illegal trafficking is the threat that affects most wildlife, particularly in countries like India. The CITES meeting failed to reach a conclusion on steps that would have addressed the domestic wildlife trade. Only a small subset of hunted animals is traded illegally and an even smaller volume reaches international trade.

CITES could be a powerful tool to curtail the widespread and proliferating illegal wildlife trade that is pushing species into extinction if national governments are strongly compliant. However, to do that, countries – particularly those which are large destinations for illegal wildlife products like China – should firmly clamp down on their domestic markets and consumption under the guide of traditional medicine. Until that happens, the lucrative nature of wildlife trade will ensure that rare and endangered wildlife continues to be slaughtered, while also raising the risk of emerging zoonotic infections such as Covid-19.

Vikram Aditya currently works as a Principal Scientist at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru. He conducts research on wildlife and conservation broadly, with a particular focus on hunting and it’s impacts on threatened species.

Also read: How the pandemic has driven a surge in wildlife smuggling through North East India