Flagship species and the conservation of the entire ecosystem: why individual species matter

Updated on 12 January 2021

Opening Presentation of CITES Secretary-General
Mr. John E. Scanlon*
at the joint side-event during CBD CoP11

18 October 2012, Hyderabad, India

Good morning and welcome to this joint side event being convened by the CITES Secretariat together with the Secretariats of the CBD, CMS, UNEP and IUCN.

We have an excellent group of presenters and panelists to join us today from each Secretariat and they will present on the topic from their own particular perspective.

Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, at the Opening of
this week’s High-Level Segment

Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, at the Opening of this week’s High-Level Segment stated: “We have, therefore, initiated work on species recovery programmes on 16 identified endangered species, including the snow leopard, hangul and lion. Such country level efforts at preservation should be complemented by enhanced international collaboration to check wildlife crime”.

The “New Delhi ASEAN-India Ministerial Statement on Biodiversity” adopted by the Ministers responsible for  the environment and their representatives of India and ASEAN countries in the lead up to this meeting included two statements we would also like to highlight:

“To work together towards conservation and management of flagship species that would contribute to conservation of the entire ecosystem;

To work together for enhancing the capacity for conservation, management (especially, monitoring, surveillance and control) and sustainable utilization of coastal and marine biodiversity.”

CITES regulates international trade in close to 35,000 species of plants and animals, both terrestrial and marine, including flagship species such as tigers, elephants, polar bears, the great white shark, rhinos and great apes. And at our next CoP in March, 2013 in Bangkok, which coincides with our 40th Anniversary, Parties will consider the inclusion of several significant sharks, rays and timber species – with full details on our website.

CITES prohibits international trade for commercial purposes for about 900 or 3% of listed species - species that are already threatened with extinction. For the other listed species, trade is regulated to be sure it is legal, sustainable and traceable - and in making the necessary non-detriment scientific finding prior to authorizing any trade under CITES, the scientific authority is obliged to consider the role of the species to be traded in the ecosystem.

We all recognize the importance of the ecosystem approach and the purpose of this side event is not to suggest otherwise, but  equally we need to acknowledge that people legally trade in, or illegally exploit, individual species - and we must not lose sight of what is driving the threat of extinction of individual species or the role of these individual species in the ecosystem, as is specifically reflected in the language of Article IV para 3 of our Convention.

Individual species can play a key role in the ecosystem, such as the vultures here in India, where their dramatic decline in the 1990s due to the use of a vetinerary drug led to a commensurate increase in dogs, dog bites and rabies, with dramatic human, social and economic consequences.

Under CITES we have seen species put under severe stress through illegal killing and related illegal trade, as well as through over exploitation.

The biggest threat to the remaining population of wild tigers is illegal killing and related trade. The rhinos in Africa have recovered significantly over the past 20 years. However, we are now witnessing a spike in illegal killing and illegal trade that has seen the number of illegal killings in South Africa alone go from 13 in 2007 to 448 in 2011 and 455 so far this year. If these trends continue they could drive these iconic species to extinction.

We are also seeing illegal killing of African elephants and illegal trade in ivory reaching the highest levels in well over a decade with the species in decline across its entire range due to illegal killing and related illegal trade.

We can make similar observations with respect to many other CITES listed species, such as the white lipped peccaries, which have been described as virtual 'ecosystem engineers', and timber species such as big leaf mahogany both of which have been over exploited.

This 'cherry picking' from ecosystems can go ahead largely unnoticed with protected areas being gazetted and satellite monitoring showing forests are still in place.

And the over exploitation of individual species can lead to empty forests, with the ’Empty forest syndrome’ concept first being used by Kent H. Redford in 1992 (Redford K.H. (1992) The empty forest. Bioscience 42: 412-422) in relation to neotropical forests. It is now a widespread phenomenon and has also been reported from the marine environment where long-lived high trophic level species are being selectively removed from the sea with detrimental consequences for people and their environment (Pauly D, Christensen V, Dalsgaard J, Froese R and Torres F (1998) Fishing down marine food webs. Science, 279: 860-863).

We simply must keep a close eye on individual species and manage for them or else we run the risk of having ecosystems that are devoid of species that are of commercial value - species that often play a critical role in the entire ecosystem.

Further, managing for flagship species can be the best way to also protect its habitat - such as the tiger. And talking of individual species often better connects with the general public than does referring to biodiversity or ecosystems.

And this approach is fully consistent with the CBD, which has recognized that, and I quote:

"The ecosystem approach does not preclude other management and conservation approaches, such as biosphere reserves, protected areas, and single-species conservation programmes, as well as other approaches carried out under existing national policy and legislative frameworks, but could, rather, integrate all these approaches and other methodologies to deal with complex situations” (CBD COP 5 Decision V / 6 on Ecosystem approach).

Given the plethora of issues we are confronted with, and while we work on the complexity of problems associated with ecosystems, we should never lose sight of the possibility of quick wins on the species front: quick wins that can be easily understood by the general public and bring direct benefits to the particular species, its ecosystem and local people.

Thank you.


* CITES Secretary-General, John Scanlon, had lost his voice on the day and his speech was delivered for him by Marcos Silva.