The end of the road for CITES?

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The illicit trade in wildlife, generally estimated as being worth anywhere between US $7 and US $23 billion a year, is bad and harms economies, people, and ecosystems. This is without question, true. But would the opposite hold water: that legal and regulated wildlife trade benefits people and nature? At first glance, the response would probably be a resounding, “Yes, of course.” After all, the legal wildlife trade delivers some US $300 billion into any number of coffers around the world. But, as you start to peel back the layers, so things become ever murkier, and you begin to wonder…

CITES is an international treaty that has been in force since 1975. It has the mandate of governing international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants and ensuring that this trade does not threaten their survival. So far, roughly 5,800 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants are protected by CITES against over-exploitation. But are they protected, and what of the many, many other species not as yet included? These are troubling questions, and CITES comes in for severe criticism from many sides.

“CITES needs to kick out the animal rights groups,” said South African columnist Ivo Vegter in late 2019, further demanding that their financial influence “should be neutered.”

This vitriolic attack was poured out in the wake of the CITES meetings in Geneva in August last year. Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe had campaigned for the right to sell ivory gleaned from natural deaths, confiscations, and culling. At the same time, Zambia also wanted concessions regarding the sale of raw ivory and trophy hunting. But all these proposals were voted down.

At the same meetings, Namibia and Eswatini’s proposal to reopen legal trade in white rhinos was also rejected. This was a major blow to those lobbying hard for a legal horn trade, especially in South Africa, where some 7,000 rhinos, representing almost half the country’s total population, are privately owned.

These “defeats” incensed many people in the 16-nation-strong SADC bloc, and there were murmurings, not for the first time, of withdrawal from CITES. “The result has been failure to adopt progressive, equitable, inclusive and science-based conservation strategies,” Tanzanian Environment Minister George Simbachawene told the Geneva meeting. “Time has come to seriously reconsider whether there are any meaningful benefits from our membership to CITES,” he said.

As we have come to expect in all walks of life, where there is defeat, there also has to be blame. And in this case, the affronted parties, including the likes of Vegter, rounded on organizations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Born Free, known for their well-articulated stances against opening ivory and rhino horn to legal trade. Few are more against these NGOs, however, than the True Green Alliance, which says the ideology of animal-rightism “has no place in any civilised and responsible society.”

Strongly polarizing statements such as this are singularly unhelpful to the cause of global conservation. And they also miss the point. For there are far more pressing issues emerging about CITES as a global guardian of good conduct regarding the world’s wild flora and fauna. There is a groundswell of censure aimed at the organization, not because of the thwarted, selfish interests of a few SADC countries, but because it is failing at a fundamental level. And sadly, according to a recent report, this has appallingly manifested in South Africa.

According to the report, South Africa has become the largest exporter of live wild animals to Asia where they are mostly doomed to be eaten, abandoned in zoos, used in medicinal potions, and used in scientific experiments. “The legal trade with China is extensive, with glaring violations overlooked by authorities and benefits flowing to a few wealthy traders. The legal trade also acts as a cover for illicit trade. CITES legal wildlife trade monitoring systems contain extensive loopholes, gaps and opportunities to launder illegal items into the legal market.”

The damning report continues to say that oversight by CITES is “so lax it’s almost non-existent”… and that “the commonly held belief and one conveniently relied on by the pro-wildlife trade advocates, including CITES, is that only the illegal wildlife trade is the problem.” This is a complete misconception as huge damage can also be laid at the door of the legal wildlife trade. “The idea of ‘well-regulated’ markets is a myth,” claims the report, “a smokescreen behind which deeply embedded interests exploit wild animals for purely commercial gain.”

CITES relies on its permitting system to regulate the legal trade of wildlife, but the report points out that this backbone of the system is “riddled with irregularities and gaping loopholes.”

Could it be then that CITES is indeed unfit for purpose? And that the international wildlife trade and all it embraces “has nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with commercialisation, commodification and profit?”

Maybe CITES’s days are numbered, not for the reasons cited by Mr. Vegter and others of that ilk, but because it is time to stop trading wildlife full stop. A time to reconsider our relationship with nature and to apply our minds to developing a better, more compassionate paradigm—one that is more equitable for people, wildlife, and the planet.

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Time for a new approach—a time for compassionate conservation.

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Wildlife trafficking is a brutal, cruel industry controlled by very powerful international crime syndicates. In financial terms, the global scale of illegal trade in wild creatures and their body parts, as well as plants, is, by its secretive nature, difficult to assess. Estimates, however, range between US $7 billion and $23 billion a year. It is a huge part of the clandestine world of organized crime, outstripped only by trafficking in drugs, humans, and weapons. It is ugly, ruthless, totally indifferent to suffering, and all but unstoppable, with the big men behind the smuggling mantled in anonymity and seemingly beyond the reach of law enforcement authorities.

The international body charged with regulating this wildlife trade is CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Notwithstanding their efforts, however, the extent of illegal trade is escalating at an unprecedented rate. And this is not only causing serious setbacks to decades of conservation work but is pushing many species to the point of crisis and dire threat to their very existence.

The drivers behind illegal trade are numerous. Endemic poverty in range states means that small sums of cash easily recruit poachers in income-starved communities who see very little value in wildlife. The rapid burgeoning of wealth in end-market countries, particularly in Asia, means more and more people can afford commodities such as ivory and rhino horn that carry huge lifestyle status.

That the current levels of illegal trade are unsustainable and immensely harmful to the survival prospects of the species involved, goes without saying. But what of the trade in wildlife species as a whole? Is that any more sustainable? The answer is almost certainly not. In fact, the illegal trade, for all its justifiably high profile in the media, is but the tip of the iceberg.

As the TRAFFIC organization notes: “The legal trade in wildlife products involves thousands of different fauna and flora species, provides a source of income for millions of producers, raw materials for businesses and local collectors, and a staggering array of goods for hundreds of millions of consumers. It plays an undeniably fundamental role in regional, national, and international economies.”

The market for exotic animals and plants is not a new one. The world’s wildlife has been traded freely and without sanction or restriction throughout the ages. Even now, in terms of international law, millions of animals and plants across thousands and thousands of species are “mined” from the wild every year and sold on as pets, food, medicine, timber, garden plants, tourist tat, and in many other guises. And the size of this “legitimate” industry? As an indication, permits for around 900,000 legal shipments of protected wildlife products are issued annually with an estimated worth of some US $300 billion.

Of course, the damage being done to wildlife populations around the world cannot be laid exclusively at the door of trade, whether legal or otherwise. But such exploitation goes hand in hand with all the other human activities that impact the lives of wild animals—our reforming of natural landscapes for our villages, towns, and cities for our industries, and for farming the food that we need for our own species’ survival.

In the process, we have cast aside any concern for wild animals and their habitats. Their wellbeing is unimportant confronted with our needs. By and large, environmental law and policy reflect this. WWF’s Living Planet Reportreveals it in no uncertain terms. “Earth is losing biodiversity at a rate seen only during mass extinctions.” One of its takeaway headlines cries, “and in less than 50 years, we’ve seen an overall decline of 60% in population sizes of vertebrate species.”

Covid-19 and its ramifications are giving us a timely reminder of the need to re-imagine our relationship with nature. And not just on a fundamental philosophical level, but a practical one, too. For all the damage we have wrought on nature, we still derive ecosystem services from it to the tune of US $125 trillion every year. That is just a few trillion shy of the world’s total GDP.

Perhaps there is a new way under the banner of compassionate conservation, a new paradigm in which nature has a “voice” in environmental policy.

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Anti-poaching challenges during lockdown, and beyond.

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There are justifiable fears of an upsurge in poaching activity in Africa’s conservation areas in the wake of Covid-19. The link is direct. The disease-related lockdowns have dealt a massive body blow to tourism and the cash flows that derive from it. In most game reserves, whether state, community, or privately owned, revenues from tourism literally finance everything, including the salaries of the men and women who are the front-line defense against poaching.

To prevent wholesale poaching and wildlife trafficking in the wake of Covid-19, it is imperative that anti-poaching teams are kept operational and at full strength. Image, Wikimedia Commons

Lodges can be mothballed, and hospitality staff can be furloughed until the world re-emerges. But if the people who protect the land and the wildlife are removed from the equation, the doors are opened up to infiltration by desperate, hungry people and the avarice of poaching bosses who use them as their foot soldiers. It is imperative, therefore, that anti-poaching teams everywhere are kept at full strength and wholly operational. Also, the best possible relations must be fostered with rural communities alongside game areas. They are a vital link in the anti-poaching chain.

Ironically, some consequences of the lockdown seem to have worked against trafficking criminals. With citizens forced to stay at home and army and police patrolling the highways and byways, it has arguably become more difficult for poachers and middlemen to carry on their nefarious business.

Other opinions suggest that poaching pressure continues unabated. In Botswana, for instance, rhinos are being evacuated because officials are increasingly concerned that poachers have become emboldened by the absence of safari tourists. The full picture, like so many aspects related to the coronavirus pandemic, will only emerge over the months to come. We do know from bitter experience, however, that criminal syndicates are resourceful. There can be little doubt that they are already probing new strategies to source “product”. With such large money flows at stake, it wouldn’t be surprising if government and private stockpiles of ivory and rhino horn were to become an increasing focus of attention.

South Africa has just completed a full six weeks of one of the strictest lockdown protocols imposed on the people of any country. Coronavirus infections and deaths have been kept reassuringly low. And there are now signs of relaxation and a welcome, gradual reopening of economic activity. The social and financial wounds left by the disease are, however, still a long way from scarring over, let alone healing. Sadly, tourism will probably be one of the slowest sectors to recover. It could be 2023 before tourism shows meaningful recuperation. And in that context, the cost of having maintained the integrity of anti-poaching networks for the initial six weeks or so of lockdown could prove a mere bagatelle in relation to future financial challenges.

If recovery from the knock-on effects of Covid-19 were the only serious challenge facing the protection of our wild places, it would be bad enough. But we also need to keep a very watchful eye on developments in northern Mozambique. This huge country lies along a 2,800-mile (4,571-kilometer) very porous border to the east of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania.

On Tuesday this week, Andrew Harding, the BBC’s correspondent for Africa, wrote of the “simmering Islamist” rebellion in Mozambique’s remote far northern province of Cabo Delgado. The conflict has already caused thousands of villagers to flee their homes in terror. And now, there is gruesome video evidence of greater organization and purpose on the part of the insurgents known locally as al-Shabab.

There are no known links between the Mozambican rebels and the Somali-based, al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabab group who have carried out attacks in East Africa. But there is compelling evidence, however, of the jihadists in Cabo Delgado claiming allegiance to Islamic State.

This is bad news on so many levels. For the people obviously—some 200,000 souls have already been displaced—but also the wildlife. The links between fundamentalist insurgents and wildlife exploitation are well documented, although perhaps somewhat overstated, as a significant source of conflict funding. As Vanda Felbab-Brown of the highly respected Brookings think-tank says, “…most poachers are not terrorists, and most militants and terrorists are not poachers.” But there can be no denying that one way or another conflict is socially and environmentally devastating. The world has no shortage of evidence of such tragedies.

Even if the consequences of civil strife in Mozambique were to have only a small impact on the wildlife security of its game-rich neighbors, for anti-poaching resources already weakened by the financial hardships brought on by Covid-19, the results could be devastating. It behooves the countries most likely to be affected to face up to this potential threat sooner rather than later.

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