Rosewood, Pangolins, and Whales: CITES Standing Committee Meets in Geneva

On November 27 through December 1, the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) met to discuss measures countries are taking worldwide to halt the illegal trade of endangered species.  

With substantive discussions around protections for rosewood, pangolins, sei whales, and other at-risk species, CITES affirmed its vital role in protecting endangered species from trafficking. But even as tangible steps were taken to curb illegal trade, some countries pushed for new loopholes that would undermine existing protections.

CITES is an international agreement that aims to ensure that the international trade of plants and animals does not threaten species’ survival. CITES protects thousands of plant and animal species from over-exploitation, and 183 countries from around the world are party to the agreement.

At the most recent meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, countries discussed the rules for trade in specific species, as well as progress by specific countries in stemming the trade of listed species. Overall, parties demonstrated a commitment to CITES as a powerful tool to prevent wildlife trafficking, but a few key countries resisted important measures to fight illegal trade.


With its distinctive blood-red hue, rosewood is highly coveted for luxury furniture and musical instruments globally. However, it is also the world’s most trafficked wild product, with regulators struggling to keep up with illegal loggers as they exhaust one species before moving onto the next.

Last year, countries took a huge step in protecting rosewood. In one fell swoop, they listed an entire genus, putting in place trade controls for over 300 individual rosewood species. It was the single largest listing under CITES to date.

But in the November meeting, several proposals threatened to put the species at risk and undermine hard-won protections.

Madagascar Trade Suspension Extended

Due to ongoing problems stopping the illegal trafficking of rosewood in Madagascar, there is an international trade embargo on various precious woods from the country. At the meeting, however, Madagascar requested the suspension be lifted in order to export its stockpiles of thousands of tons of seized timber.

The request was denied because the country has failed to fulfill its commitments to take stock of their rosewood, create effective enforcement against illegal logging, and prosecute those who are found to be illegally trafficking timber.

Rosewood in Musical Instruments

Rosewood is a common material in musical instruments such as guitars, so the music industry has engaged in CITES talks around rosewood trade controls. Currently, the rosewood listing requires CITES permits for cross-border transport of commercial rosewood, which the industry claims affects the repair of specialized instruments and other activities.

Parties at the Standing Committee meeting discussed the interpretation of “non-commercial” in an attempt to provide greater leeway to the music industry while preventing loopholes that could undermine the controls on rosewood trade. Those at the meeting approved an interim interpretation until the listing is changed, likely at the 18th Conference of Parties in 2019. Parties also agreed to explicitly exclude sale from the interpretation.

A Dangerous Loophole Proposed by China

In the meeting, China proposed a loophole to allow Lao PDR to export finished products that were registered and ready for export before the new rosewood listings approved at CoP-17 went into effect in January 2017. Trade enforcement and documentation vary widely by country, opening the door for corruption and manipulation of documentation. If applied broadly to species for which a trade ban is in place or those that have been “uplisted” from Appendix II to Appendix I, such an exemption could open the floodgates for countries to continue commercial trade. Further, some countries have exploited the exclusion of finished products from CITES controls on certain species in the past — for example, by claiming that an intact log with a small carving in it was in fact a “finished product.”

If the loophole were approved, Lao PDR could prove to be fertile ground for continued rosewood trafficking. For this reason, CIEL worked with Parties to include a requirement that Lao PDR provide a list of their finished products. To everyone’s surprise, the government of Lao PDR admitted that they did not have any finished products registered and ready for export prior to January 2017. Therefore, such language would be unnecessary.

The proposed loophole is based on a previous decision that permitted Madagascar to export certain species of Dalbergia wood that were finished products before the trade suspension on those species. Given the potential for abuse if this loophole were applied more broadly, CIEL and other civil society groups agree that the decision should not be taken as precedent.


This loophole could have a similar effect for species like pangolins.

Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal. These small, scale-covered anteaters live on the continents of Asia and Africa. They are at risk from being hunted for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in some places, and their blood and scales, which are thought to have medicinal properties. Pangolins are further threatened by habitat loss through deforestation.

Last year, all eight species of pangolin were listed under CITES, banning international commercial trade in these animals. But continued illegal trafficking of pangolins is rampant.

During the meeting, China, a hub for pangolin trafficking, announced the largest seizure of pangolins yet: the scales of an estimated 20,000 pangolins.

Dangerously, the proposed loophole would allow countries like China to sell their stockpiles of endangered species like pangolins, undermining the ban and offering a new way for countries to continue their illegal trade of at-risk species.

Unfortunately, the issue was not definitively resolved. Countries will consider this issue and likely make a formal decision at the upcoming CoP-18. In the meantime, the working group agreed that countries should apply restrictions to current trade, regardless of whether the stockpiles or specimens were obtained before the stricter measures went into effect. However, China registered its opposition, stating that it views this interim interpretation as a voluntary measure rather than an obligation.

Sei Whales

Under CITES, sei whales cannot be taken from the sea for commercial reasons. However, Japan has long been harvesting whales for “scientific” reasons, which civil society and other countries have decried as a front for commercial use of the species.

At the meeting, countries debated whether or not to take action against Japan for its alleged failure to comply with its obligations under CITES. However, parties decided that the evidence was not conclusive and the CITES Secretariat should conduct a fact-finding mission in Japan to present more information at next year’s Standing Committee meeting.


Afrormosia is a rare, high-value tropical hardwood with beautiful coloration ranging from a golden hue to a deeper brown. This endangered species is also listed for protection under CITES.

CIEL and others have had ongoing concerns about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for its illegal logging and export of afrormosia. Currently, the country has an added level of supervision through CITES, and additional recommendations were proposed at the Standing Committee, including: the requirement that the DRC continue to submit copies of their CITES permits to the Secretariat for review and verification, finalize and use a system for tracking afrormosia exports, and conduct a study on the conversion rate of these trees into processed products, among other requirements.

At the meeting, the DRC requested that some of these requirements be lifted, in spite of the fact that it has repeatedly failed to fulfill its own stated commitments. For example, in 2015, the country committed to share its tracking system with the CITES Secretariat and any parties requesting that information. Whether they will ever do so remains to be seen.

CIEL was able to work in concert with Parties to push back against the requests and ensure that these requirements remain in place.

By Marie Mekosh
Communications and Development Associate

Originally posted on December 19, 2017


Photo of pangolin by Maria Diekmann of the Rare and Endangered Species Trust, via Wikicommons