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The end of the road for CITES?

By May 22, 2020Editorial

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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