Sharks and songbirds get new trade protections

A close-up underwater blue shark with a human diver far in the background

The blue shark, a member of the requiem shark family, is the most heavily fished shark in the world

Songbirds and sharks have been given what conservationists say are vital new trade protections.

Several shark species and two songbirds have been added to a list of trade-restricted species to avoid being “traded to extinction”.

The decision was taken Friday at a world summit in Panama.

The meeting takes place against the backdrop of an ongoing global extinction crisis.

Other animals receiving additional protection in the international wildlife trade treaty known as CITES include dozens of freshwater turtles and frogs.

“More than a million species are threatened with extinction if we don’t change the way we treat wildlife,” said Matthew Collis, deputy vice president for wildlife conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

“Governments at CITES have shown that they are beginning to understand the magnitude of the challenge required to meet the crisis facing the natural world.”

Some of the new species on the list will face a complete ban on trade, while others will see new restrictions aimed at encouraging more sustainable international trade.

The white-rumped shama and straw-headed bulbul are just two species, both found in Southeast Asia, whose populations have been devastated by the songbird trade, where birds are captured for their singing ability and used in hugely popular bird-song competitions.

A white-rumped shama passerine bird close up in its cage

Praised for its singing – the white-rumped shama

The straw-headed bulbul, in particular, has been driven to extinction – declining by 80% in the last 15 years, according to BirdLife International – due to trapping that fuels the huge demand for caged birds in Southeast Asia.

“If there’s one species that deserves this mention, it’s the straw-headed bulbul,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, executive director of TRAFFIC South East Asia, a non-governmental organization dedicated to the global wildlife trade.

Both now have additional protections through new trade restrictions agreed at the global wildlife summit, with a full trade ban on the straw-headed bulbul.

Three rows of colorful birdcages at a market in Jakarta, Indonesia

Songbirds are caught and sold by the thousands at markets like this one in Jakarta, Indonesia

However, experts say many songbirds that are not on the list do not enjoy the same protection and remain endangered.

Roger Safford, a conservationist for BirdLife International, said the decision was “a strong and direct response to the rapid decline of these species.”

“Unsustainable trade is a big problem,” he told BBC News. “And it is often deeply rooted in traditions and societies – but regulation, including trade bans, is certainly part of the solution. So we shouldn’t miss the opportunity [to put it in place].”

Nearly 100 species of sharks and shark-like rays were also given protection to ensure that any trade in their flesh and fins – which has put some sharks on the brink of extinction – is legal and sustainable.

This brings most shark species in international trade under the control of the treaty.

Most of the new species on the list belong to the requiem shark family, which includes the tiger sharks, bull sharks and blue sharks.

According to Glenn Sant, senior fisheries and traceability advisor at TRAFFIC, almost half of all international shark fin trade is made up of requiems.

Pale dorsal fin of a blue shark, photographed underwater

The fins of the blue shark are used in shark fin soup and traditional Chinese medicines

While some of these sharks are not considered endangered, all have been added to account for “lookalikes” – species that are difficult to distinguish from those that are critically endangered.

The inclusion of similar species means that traders cannot pass off a protected shark as an unprotected shark in a trade.

The guitarfish family of shark-like rays, whose fins are traded as shark fins, also received 37 species of new protection.

The rays are a coastal species, particularly vulnerable to fishing methods such as trawling.

“It’s a very important first step,” says Sant. “We all get excited when species are listed on CITES. But the hard work starts when countries actually have to implement that.”

Other species that received new protection include the tiny, translucent glass frogs and dozens of species of freshwater turtles, both highly prized by collectors of exotic pets.

A small glass frog perched on a thin, branchy stem of vegetation

Small glass frogs are highly sought after by collectors of exotic species

Freshwater turtles are one of the most endangered vertebrate groups, some of which are sold for thousands of pounds.

Among the freshwater turtles that have received new protection, both species are in the unusual-looking matamata family.

The listings mean that any trade needs proof that it is sustainable and legal.

Experts from conservation organizations praised the additions, but stressed that other vulnerable species remain unprotected by the treaty.

A matamata turtle on a tree trunk against a background of forest

Endangered – the unusual looking matamata turtles

“We would have loved to see more freshwater turtles [protected] — all freshwaters are in trouble and overfished,” said Sue Lieberman, vice president of international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Amphibians and reptiles in general have received a lack of attention, according to Lieberman, even though their popularity as pets has increased since the first lockdowns of the pandemic.

“We need to look more at amphibian trade in the future because amphibians have been hit hard by climate change and they’ve been hit hard by disease, so they’re more vulnerable to trade,” says Lieberman.

Rising temperatures around the world have increased the spread and severity of diseases affecting amphibians and could cause their habitats to become too dry.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List lists 41% of amphibian species at risk of extinction, making them one of the most endangered classes of vertebrates on Earth.

“We’re not saying it shouldn’t be [trade]we’re saying it shouldn’t exist in a way that drives these species to extinction,” says Lieberman.

A pile of ivory animal tusks

Governments agreed again this year not to reopen the international ivory market

While governments rejected proposals to reopen international trade in ivory and rhino horn, experts expressed frustration that the divisive discussions were brought to the fore again this year at all, saying it sends the wrong signal to ivory traders.

“We can’t afford to trade ivory,” says Lieberman.

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