From 30,000 feet, CITES looks like a steady convention, mature almost to the point of being middle-aged and dull. There is the predictable steady flow of implementation activities, and about twice a year a major gathering of practitioners occurs, a Standing Committee Meeting concerning implementation issues, and either a Plants and Animals Committee meeting of technical experts or a Conference of Parties, where signatory governments review progress and set course for the future, writes Peter Paul van Dijk, IUCN/SSC Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises Specialist Group.
At ground level, though, these gatherings can easily appear overwhelming. The 15th Conference of Parties, now in progress in Doha, Qatar, is no different. The definitive numbers are not in yet, but well over a hundred government delegations, well over 150 Non Governmental Organisations and other organizations, plus members of the press, security officials and others all add up to over two thousand people filling the conference venue.
The objective of CITES is straightforward: ensuring that international trade in plants and animals is sustainable, ensuring that species are not further threatened by trade, while their trade can continue to provide economic and other benefits to rural communities and national economies. Despite universal agreement on, and support for, this objective, there are widely diverging views on how to actually achieve this, and where the boundaries of CITES are or should be. Positions and convictions range from strict protectionism to 'use it or lose it' views, and differ greatly on whether management of wildlife commodities, like timber and fisheries, benefits from CITES involvement, or is better left to other management and regulatory bodies.
Having all these people and all these opinions in one convention centre for two weeks gives an idea of how it must feel to be an ant in an anthill. Everybody is scurrying around, sounding out others' positions, trying to convince others of their conviction in presentations, conversations and documentation, rushing to working group meetings to iron out agreement on fine details, or just off to a wonderful lunch courtesy of our Qatari hosts.
But, like an anthill, what appears to be chaos is actually pretty organized and effective. Most issues will come to a conclusion, at least for now, that will satisfy most delegations. Delegations will go home and start reflecting on the implications of decisions taken, start implementing as appropriate and, over time, realize further fine-tuning will be required. Desirable changes will be envisaged, and position papers, reports and documents will be drafted in preparation for the next CITES Conference of the Parties. And in about three years, most of us will be back in a similar anthill somewhere else on the planet. We don't quite enjoy it - but we wouldn't miss it for the world!