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Freshwater species given protection at international summit

March 15, 2013

It’s good news for some of the world’s most endangered freshwater species. Nearly 50 freshwater species – from threatened freshwater turtles and tortoises to the rare freshwater sawfish – were given stronger protection at the recent CITES summit.

The critically endangered Roti Island snake-necked turtle is highly desirable in the exotic pet market, fetching €2,000 for one animal.

The critically endangered Roti Island snake-necked turtle is highly south after on the exotic pet market. Photo: ARKive.

Last week governments from across the world came together in the Thai capital, Bangkok, to discuss proposals to protect some of the most threatened species on the planet from harmful international trade. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) puts in place rules agreed upon by the world’s governments for the conservation of some of the most threatened species by banning the trade of certain species or placing quotas, restrictions and rules concerning the trade of endangered species (these are known as Appendix I, II or III listings).

The biggest news from the summit was that countries agreed to protect 47 species of the world’s most endangered freshwater tortoises and turtles in Asia and the United States. The decision to strengthen the rules governing the trade of these species was agreed upon by consensus from the nearly 200 countries present and saw the United States and China vote together for the first time ever at the international wildlife summit. This saw 44 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises in Asia and three species of pond turtles in America receive increased protected to prevent these species from disappearing.

The Ryukyu black-breasted leaf turtle is a National Treasure of Japan.

The Ryukyu black-breasted leaf turtle is a National Treasure of Japan.

Over half of the world’s freshwater tortoises and turtles face extinction and are in desperate need of conservation efforts, but many are still under threat from hunting for food, collectors of exotic animals, use in traditional medicine and for their shells, which are made into ornaments. And the trade is a lucrative one too. Some collectors are willing to pay anywhere between €2000-€10,000 per individual of some species, which will prove a big challenge in terms of cracking down on illegal trade.

Last week’s summit also saw another precedent: Japan, for the first time ever for any species at CITES, asked the help of the world’s governments to protect the rare Ryukyu Black-breasted Leaf Turtle, which is a ‘natural monument’ in the country.

Prized for its fins and unique saw.

Prized for its fins and unique saw.

The freshwater sawfish (Pristis microdon) is another critically endangered species that was given the top protection under CITES. This elusive animal is a large, shark-like ray that used to found in the waters in and around the Indian sub-continent, South-East Asia and Australia, but is now virtually extinct in most of this region having not been seen in decades in Indonesia and Thailand and now only found in northern Australia. The freshwater sawfish can live in on the bottom of muddy or sandy rivers and estuaries or shallow coastal water and are high-order predators, eating a delicious diet of mainly fish and prawns. These unique sea creatures are sought after for their valuable fins and saws and the decision to protect the freshwater sawfish means that international trade in all species of sawfish has now been banned.

Siamese Crocodile Vietnam is one of the rarest crocodiles in the world

There was another win for freshwater biodiversity at the CITES summit. The critically endangered Siamese freshwater crocodile retained the highest level of protection under the convention, after a bid from Thailand to downgrade it failed. The Siamese crocodile is one of the most endangered crocodiles in the world. Once found widely throughout most of South-East Asia, it is now confined to just 1% of its original habitat. Although a few small wild populations remain, mostly in Cambodia with smaller populations in Indonesia, Laos, and Thailand, there is a significant captive population for commercial uses throughout the region. The importance of this decision is underscored by the extinction of the crocodile in Vietnam last year. The last Siamese crocodile in Vietnam was found strangled to death aged nearly 100 years old, possibly killed by hunters.

Though there is still work to be done in enforcing these new rules and cracking down on illegal poaching and trade, the outcomes of the CITES 2013 summit can definitely be seen as a big win for freshwater conservation and biodiversity and is welcome news.

For an overview of some of the other key decisions made during the CITES summit see here and here.

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