The Sidelining of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities in CITES Media Coverage

By Dr Nikolas Sellheim
Photo: Ng Swan Ti / Oxfam.

Dr Nikolas Sellheim
Director, Sellheim Environmental
Fellow, Polar Research and Policy Initiative

The fall and winter of 2022 hosted five of the most relevant and prominent international meetings for the protection of biodiversity and the climate: The 68th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), 17—21 October in Portorož, Slovenia; the 14th Conference of the Parties (CoP) of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 5—13 November in Geneva, Switzerland (in-person) and Wuhan, China (online); the 27th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 6—20 November in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt; the 19th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), 14—25 November in Panama City, Panama; and the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), 7—19 December in Montréal, Canada.

While from a conservation perspective, all of these meetings play a significant role, not all of them have been represented in the international (i.e. English- and German-speaking) media landscape. While the UNFCCC and CBD meetings made significant headlines, the Ramsar meeting did not. While in the past, IWC meetings were widely covered, it can now hardly be found. CITES ranges somewhere in the middle.

What most of the media articles have in common is the fact that a focus on people is generally speaking missing, particularly with regard to CITES. This is quite significant since although CITES deals with the international trade in endangered species, long-lasting discussions on the effects of CITES-listings on livelihoods, food security and culture lead to a growing divide between CITES Parties concerning this issue.

In this contribution, I analyse several articles found through a Google search with the search terms “CITES Panama 2022”, “Wildlife conference 2022”, “CITES meeting 2022” and “CITES CoP19”. The result yielded a surprisingly low number of articles, the majority of which refers to the proposed and adopted regulation the global shark (fin) trade. The list of the articles can be found at the end of this analysis. In addition, two German articles from SpiegelOnline and the publicly funded Tagesschau were also taken into account. The primary result of this Google search, however, yielded contributions from environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs).

What is CITES (in and for the media)?

While widely being hailed as one of the most successful conservation regimes in the world, the purpose of CITES appears to be relatively unknown. Starting with the terminology applied, for instance, the widely used term ‘wildlife conference’ for the 19th Conference of the Parties of CITES (CoP19) in Panama is misleading, since, of course, the Convention deals with wildlife, but merely with the international trade in wildlife, which, as per the purpose of the Convention, is endangered. In German, CITES is furthermore known as the ‘Artenschutzkonvention’ (‘species protection convention’), which does not reflect its sole focus on international trade. Both terms imply that CITES is a convention whose purpose it is to protect wildlife through means other than necessarily trade.

Adopted in 1973 and in force since 1975, CITES functions through the inclusion of species in its three Appendices: Appendix I lists species which are threatened with extinction and the international trade in which is to be prohibited (unless for very specific purposes). Currently, 1082 species and 36 subspecies are listed here. Appendix II lists species the trade in which is to be regulated in order to prevent them to become endangered. 37,420 species and 15 subspecies are included in this Appendix. Appendix III lists species which are nationally protected and for which a Party seeks international support. 211 species, 14 subspecies and 1 species variation are included here. At present, the Convention has a membership of 184 Parties.

Against this backdrop, it is important to consider how CITES is presented in the media coverage concerning CoP19, inevitably shaping public knowledge of the Convention.

  • CITES protects species by prohibiting international trade
  • CITES has 184 members
  • It has been crucial for the protection of rhinos, elephants, whales and sea turtles
  • The trade in 38,000 species has been prohibited or is strictly regulated
  • CITES is currently meeting in Panama
  • CITES meets every three years

A wordcruncher through the software Atlas.ti yielded that the word ‘sharks’ appears 51 times and the word ‘shark’ 50 times throughout these articles, after ‘trade’ (98 times), ‘species’ (85 times) and ‘CITES’ (68 times).  The term ‘indigener’ (‘indigenous’) occurs one time (see below).

The ‘historic’ agreement to protect sharks

Sharks consequently stand at the core of media coverage concerning the most recent CITES meeting. Sharks and in fact marine species have been subject to intense CITES discussions for a long time. At CoP19, Panama, along with several other Parties including the European Union, tabled a proposal to list the entire family of requiem sharks (Carcharhinidae spp.) in Appendix II, which was adopted by the CoP and which has been hailed as ‘historic’ by conservation organisations and several media articles. The family Carcharhinidae spp. includes more than 50 different species. While 19 of these were mentioned individually, the others were referred to as entire genera under the so-called ‘lookalike’ provision under the Convention. This provision enables trade regulation of species that are not endangered, but which, due to their similar appearance, should be regulated in order to protect threatened species.

The FAO’s Advisory Expert Panel on Fisheries, which evaluated the proposal, recommended not to adopt the proposal since merely three species were in fact endangered (in so far as they meet CITES’ own criteria to include species in Appendix II), 12 species do not meet criteria and four are data deficient. It is noteworthy to mention here that the CITES Secretariat and the Advisory Panel have an MoU in place, seeking the Panel’s advice on proposals concerning marine fisheries.

Irrespective of the Panel’s advice, the proposal was adopted by a vast majority of Parties (requiring a 2/3 majority): 88 voted in favour, 29 against and 17 abstained. While an implementation of this new listing was postponed by one year, from then on, trade in any species belonging to the Carcharhinidae family is subject to CITES regulation.

Where are the world’s indigenous peoples and local communities?

While Tanya Wyatt has shown that more and more CITES listings may cause compliance issues (Wyatt, 2016), especially for developing countries, the articles’ focus on sharks leaves out important discussions that took place during the CoP concerning indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs). Already the discussions surrounding the Appendix II listing of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus), which some Parties aimed to include even in Appendix I at CoP18 in 2019, showed that it is the livelihoods of IPLCs which are directly affected by Appendix listings. Since CITES has no mechanism in place to strategically include IPLCs in the decision-making process, to consider livelihoods (Cooney & Abensperg-Traun, 2013) and the fact any Party can table a proposal for a CITES listing of any species, resistance against this modus operandi has grown amongst indigenous and local resource users. 

To this end, especially developing states have again tabled motions to, first, establish a Rural Communities Advisory Committee (a softened version of the 2019-proposed and rejected Rural Communities Committee) that includes the voices of IPLCs when the strategic reviews of CITES species are conduced by the Plants and Animals Committees. This motion was again rejected. Another motion was tabled to change the criteria by which the Appendices of the Convention are to be amended. While currently primarily biological and also trade criteria play a role, the motion aimed to also include the effects on livelihoods and food security while international trade being a key driver when a proposal to amend the Appendices is tabled. Also this motion was rejected.

Media sources do not address this issue. Merely SpiegelOnline notes in reference to a WWF-representative that CITES needs to “keep up on the role of indigenous communities” (original: “[…] oder der Rolle lokaler und indigener Gemeinschaften müsse die Konvention Schritt halten”) while Martínez (2022) quotes CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero as noting that “Trade underpins human well-being, but we need to mend our relationship with nature.” Also Mohan (2022) refers to “artisans” benefitting from India’s successful work for a relief of trade restrictions of rosewood.

The vast majority, however, focus on charismatic species without due consideration of the human implications of CITES listings. This finding is rather surprising as the only way by which species can be protected through CITES is considered to be an inclusion in the Appendices. However, social sciences research has found that without the inclusion of indigenous peoples and local communities, conservation outcomes are indeed less satisfactory (e.g. Cooney et al., 2021).

By ignoring these discussions, media sources appear not to be on par with the international conservation discourse. This is especially so since under other agreements, first and foremost the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), IPLCs are considered important stakeholders in order to achieve in situ conservation. The CBD’s article 8 (j) thus aims to “respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities”, while also the 2009 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the 2018 UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) clearly stipulate the rights to participation of IPLCs.

What does this mean for (the Arctic’s) indigenous peoples?

Compared to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), CITES has lesser Arctic implications. While the former recognises Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) in Alaska, Greenland and Chukotka (as well as Bequia in St Vincent & the Grenadines), a direct CITES connection relates to the polar bear, as mentioned above. Under CITES, the polar bear has been listed in Appendix II since 1976. Since then, several attempts have been made to include polar bears in Appendix I, all of which have thus far failed. The last attempt to motivate CITES Parties to uplist the polar bear were made by the German conservation organisation NABU International at CoP18 (Sellheim Environmental, 2019). Also, at CoP19, the same organisation aimed to hold a side event with the same purpose. This side event did not take place for unknown reasons, however.

As the analysed articles have shown, a primary focus of media coverage on CITES relates to the species. While, given the purpose of the Convention, this is understandable to some degree, a complete blind spot concerning people within the media leads a disproportionate disregard of local interests. The polar bear serves as a good example in this regard: since it is endangered, CITES should protect it through prohibiting international trade. This simple narrative, which is advanced by some — not all — ENGOs ultimately shapes public opinion and therefore creates political pressure. CITES decision-makers may consequently be held by their governments to bow to this pressure and eventually place the polar bear on Appendix I — much to the detriment of Arctic indigenous peoples who depend on revenue derived from international polar bear trade.

In practice, an Appendix I-placing would mean that any international trade in polar bear skins and other specimens is no longer possible. While polar bears are by and large not hunted for their skins, but rather for subsistence purposes, the ‘side-income’ from international trade contributes to the economic development of small Arctic communities. In addition, if media outlets don’t consider the interests of IPLCs, they run into the trap of a colonialist narrative about conservation. Ignoring the polar bear in the room thus means that media are complicit in an ecocentric discourse which deprives Arctic and other indigenous peoples of their rights to actively engage in conservation and sustainable use. It is not just sharks or polar bears or elephants which are affected by a CITES listing, it is also those that live closest with these species which have to undergo significant changes in order to compensate for losses occurring because of such listing.

This is especially relevant in the Arctic where remoteness, harsh climate and associated sparse livelihood alternatives do not allow for much variation. A new discourse is therefore necessary that  considers conservation and sustainable use in one breath. Especially with regard to the polar bear, the equation ‘endangerment justifies Appendix I’ is not that simple. As, for instance, the most recent report of the IUCN’s Polar Bear Specialist Group has shown, polar bear ecology is complex and an assessment of the 19 (!) different polar bear populations does not necessarily allow for a one-size-fits-all discourse about polar bear decline (PBSG, 2021).


Cooney, R. & N. Abensperg-Traun. (2013). Raising Local Community Voices: CITES, Livelihoods and Sustainable Use. RECIEL 22(3): 301—310.
Cooney, R., DWS Challender, S. Broad, D. Roe & DJD Natusch. (2021). Think Before You Act: Improving the Conservation Outcomes of CITES Listing Decisions. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.
PBSG. (2021). Status Report on the Worlds Polar Bear Subpopulations, July 2021.
Sellheim Environmental. (2019). CITES and the polar bear.
Wyatt, T. (2021). Is CITES Protecting Wildlife? Assessing Implementation and Compliance. Abingdon: Routledge.

Media Articles

Casey, M. (2022). Hippos, sharks up for protection at UN wildlife conference. AP News, 14 November 2022.
Collyns, D. (2022). Shark fin trade regulated at last in landmark decision. The Guardian, 18 November 2022.
Demmer, A. (2022). Mehr Handelsverbote gegen das Artensterben. Tagesschau, 25 November 2022.
Joselow, M. (2022). 3 climate stories you may have missed over the Thanksgiving break. Washington Post, 28 November 2022.
Márquez, MC. (2022). Panama Calls For Major New Protection Of Sharks At CITES CoP19, Forbes, 13 November 2022.
Martínez, K. (2022). Wildlife conference boosts protection for sharks, turtles. AP News, 27 November 2022.
Mohan, V. (2022). India gets rules for export of Rosewood products relaxed during CITES meets in Panama, move to help artisans and exporters. The Times of India, 21 November 2022.
Reuters. (2022). Panama conference backs ‘historic’ plan to regulate global shark trade, Reuters, 18 November 2022.
SpiegelOnline. (2022). Wie schützt man 600 Wildarten? SpiegelOnline, 8 November 2022.
The Guardian. (2022). Sharks, songbirds and species depleted by pet trade given extra protections. The Guardian, 26 November 2022. 

Dr Nikolas Sellheim is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative, specialising in international conservation law, indigenous peoples and local communities, as well as marine mammals. He is the Director of his own consulting firm Sellheim Environmental (, focusing on the nexus between human rights and conservation. Nikolas has published extensively on the seal hunt, whaling and international conservation law and has participated as an observer in meetings of the International Whaling Commission, CITES and other international conservation bodies. Nikolas holds a PhD in law from the University of Lapland (2016). In his doctoral dissertation, he focused on the EU regime on trade in seal products, for which he conducted fieldwork in the Newfoundland sealing industry, while during his first post-doc at the Polar Cooperation Research Centre (Kobe University), he spent several weeks in the Japanese whaling town of Taiji. Apart from his consulting work, Nikolas is also co-Editor-in-Chief of Polar Record, the journal of the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK.

This article has been commissioned by Polar Research and Policy Initiative as part of a series of fact-checked articles about the Arctic, climate and the environment, and Indigenous issues, supported by the EMIF managed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. 

Disclaimer: The sole responsibility for any content supported by the European Media and Information Fund lies with the author(s) and it may not necessarily reflect the positions of the EMIF and the Fund Partners, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the European University Institute.
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