Mushrooms and the future of CITES

Mushrooms and the future of CITES

Peter Thomas

At the opening session of the twelfth meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties (COP) in Santiago, Chile, in 2002, I listened in fascination as delegates from 160 member countries debated whether CITES should cover mushrooms. While no proposal to list fungi was on the table, the question arose over a possible proposal to list the American matsutake mushroom.

The treaty’s title makes clear that it covers “trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora.” But did “flora” include mushrooms at the time the treaty was negotiated in the early 1970s? In 1961. taxonomists began to split the fungi into a separate kingdom from plants. a change that took some time, but the COP12 debate centered on whether the original negotiators of the treaty thought it covered all plants in trade in the broadest sense. Japan and China did not think fungi fell within the jurisdiction of CITES and expressed doubt that any species of fungus was endangered by trade, an assertion questioned by Kenya, Mexico, and Peru. In the end, the Parties adopted a recommendation that CITES should be considered to apply to fungi, with a reservation by the delegation of Japan.

Whether this decision will lead to the listing of a fungus under the CITES appendices is still to be determined, but it reflects a broader trait of the CITES Parties. They are forward thinking and not afraid to move into new territory as they seek to protect species from overexploitation due to international trade.

During the first decade of CITES, Parties focused their conservation attention on the large number of species initially listed. Furbearers, large mammals (such as elephants, rhinos, and tigers), crocodilians, and ornamental birds traditionally impacted by wildlife trade benefited from CITES actions. However, in the late 1980s, as concern grew fur the sustainability of fisheries and timber extraction and the impacts of such harvest on major ecosystems, proposals to list new, high-volume commercial species began to appear on the CITES agenda.

Such proposals generated great controversy, provoking questions of whether CITES was intended to deal with such species. When I began working on CITES in 1991, a proposal to list Atlantic bluefin tuna was being prepared by the United States. Within the U.S. government, experts differed on whether a CITES listing should supplant the fisheries management for tuna already in place.

At COP8 in Kyoto, Japan (1992), the proposal was hotly debated. While the proposal was rejected, the continued threat of CITES action led to a change for the better in tuna management. Generally, when other management bodies are in place for marine species, the threat of CITES listing has motivated those bodies to enact or better implement sustainable management goals. Where appropriate management bodies don’t exist, CITES has stepped in, as exemplified by the listing of the whale shark and basking shark at COP12 and the great white shark and humphead wrasse at COP13.

COP8 also saw a proposal to list the bigleaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) on CITES Appendix II. This was the first major commercial timber species to be considered for such a listing. The Parties could not agree to the listing, despite evidence of unsustainable and uncontrolled harvest.

At COP 10 in Harare, Zimbabwe (1997), a colleague and I had responsibility for marketing a new U.S./Bolivian proposal to list the species on Appendix II. We met unbending resistance from Brazil and could not achieve the two-thirds majority vote required. Finally, under threat of a call for a re-vote, we persuaded Brazil to join with other range countries to each list bigleaf mahogany on Appendix III, a measure that brought the trade under CITES review.

Eleven years after action on the tree was first proposed, with conservation concern still high and despite new measures in some countries (a moratorium on harvest and trade in place in Brazil), CITES member nations agreed at COP12 to place bigleaf mahogany on Appendix II. The U.S. supported the proposal on the strength of scientific concern over the status of the species and the conviction that placing the trade under the unique requirements of CITES would support the efforts of range countries to base continued trade on legal and sustainable harvest.

I expect that CITES will continue to explore new arenas and consider new species for protection as threats from trade continue, as habitat degradation or destruction jeopardizes species already in trade, and as new species come under greater trade pressure. Versatility was a CITES trademark at its inception in 1973 and continues to characterize the treaty today.

In 2001, the CITES Parties adopted a five-year Strategic Vision “to ensure that no species of wild fauna or flora becomes or remains subject to unsustainable exploitation because of international trade.” One of the goals is to increase cooperation with other international organizations.

Many international organizations have sustainable development among their objectives, though emphases may vary. I have represented the U.S. during contentious negotiations on CITES and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) regarding marine species. Along with sustainable development, FAO has strong food security and commercial development goals, which some of its member countries (the major fisheries nations) see as at odds with CITES’ sustainability efforts.

In contrast, strong collaboration among a variety of organizations has enhanced efforts to address the bushmeat crisis in Central Africa. Bushmeat refers to any terrestrial wild animal, including elephants, gorillas, antelopes, and pangolins, used for food. At COP11, the CITES Parties established the Bushmeat Working Group and invited other organizations, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, to participate. Each organization in the working group has brought forward unique expertise to support regional efforts to tackle unsustainable harvest and trade in bushmeat.

No mushrooms may yet be listed on CITES, but the discussions that opened COP12 highlight the willingness of Parties to conserve all living things at risk from the demands of international trade. CITES reminds us that all nations must contribute to the appropriate regulation of wildlife trade so that the diversity of the Earth will be sustained for future generations.

Dr. Thomas ( is Chief of the Division of Management Authority in the Service’s International Affairs Program in Arlington, Virginia.

COPYRIGHT 2005 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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