Emmanuel Koro Correspondent
If CITES — the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — did not exist we would want to invent it. This treaty was signed, and its secretariat authorised, in 1975 to regulate commerce in wild flora and fauna to prevent their extinction.
It was the proper step to take to stop indiscriminate and irreversible damage to wildlife species.
Over the years, however, the Geneva-based organisation charged with enforcing the treaty’s provisions, has been hijacked by Western animal rights groups. Their goal is to block all forms of trade in wildlife products even in cases where it is scientifically justified. In particular, the CITES organisation has failed to serve Southern African countries, specifically with regard to their elephant and rhino populations. Therefore, CITES’ relevance to the member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on matters affecting these iconic species is now highly questionable.
CITES has frustrated many people in Southern Africa, ranging from presidents and government ministers to the leaders of the rural communities that live side-by-side with these animals.
The frustration is most palpable where rural communities pay the costs of living with wild animals without realising any of the benefits. Worse, the trade ban in elephant ivory and rhino products imposed at the insistence of the animal rights groups has neither stopped poaching nor diminished interest in the products, but it has eliminated local communities’ benefits from wildlife.
Ironically, trade bans only help to increase poaching. Professor Marshall Murphree writes in a recent issue of Conservation: “Everyone agrees that the illegal ivory trade continues despite the international trade ban. It has (in fact) been an abject failure. CITES has had 27 years to evaluate (this) experiment and, far from being part of the solution to illegal elephant killing in Africa, the ban must be seen as part of the problem.”
But this lesson has never been learnt by the animals rights groups, some CITES member states or the CITES Secretariat, because it is something they didn’t want to learn.
The animal rights groups attract enormous contributions from Western donors by claiming that donated money will stop poaching from driving iconic species into extinction.
Apart from paying big salaries for animal rights groups’ staff, the money also helps fund CITES delegates’ travel and member country involvement in CITES activities as well as Secretariat expenses. Little, if anything, goes towards protecting the animals.
This corrupt cycle will continue unless the countries, whose wildlife is suffering at the hands of CITES, are willing to end it.
Japan did just that in a recent decision to resign its membership in the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
Japan saw how the big international non-governmental organisations influence the prevention of any form of trade in wild species — even where the evidence is clear that some whale species are no longer in danger. Japan will now resume whaling in its territorial and economic zone waters.
The countries of SADC should take the Japanese example to heart — declaring now that if CITES votes to enforce policies that individual SADC countries deem to have failed its wildlife, rural populations or national interests — they will in response refuse to abide by such harmful decisions.
“At every (major CITES) meeting the animal rights groups spend their time illegally ‘buying’ votes from sovereign states to the extent that they now control all the important issues on the agenda (either by means of outright bribery; or by means of ‘underwriting’ the delegates’ expenses at the convention),” said Ron Thomson, an ecologist and CEO of the South Africa-based True Green Alliance.
“Sovereign states can no longer rely on CITES for an honest outcome when it comes to ‘trade in wildlife’.”
If CITES continues to maintain a position that bans trade in elephants and rhino products, serious environmental damage will be done in the Southern African region.
If these keystone populations were to collapse, it could bring down the entire ecosystem that people depend on for their food and livelihoods.
“The reality in Africa is that no wildlife will survive this century unless its ‘needs’ are integrated with the ‘needs’ of Africa’s rural people in a state of symbiotic harmony,” said Mr Thomson.
The CITES rhino and elephant “conservation ship” is sinking. Shouldn’t SADC countries work for its replacement or reform? If they don’t do something, their elephant and rhino populations will be victims of a now well-known and man-made wildlife die-off.
Responding to this danger, the world’s largest rhino breeder, South Africa-based John Hume said: “At a certain point, sovereign countries need to do as Japan did to the IWC; ditch conservation partnerships that do not benefit their wildlife and the people.”
Will SADC countries make a courageous and principled decision before the CITES meeting in Sri Lanka in May 2019 that responds to the needs of their elephants, rhinos and people? We hope so. Africa can no longer surrender its sovereignty to Western animal rights organisations that are intent on controlling its wildlife to support their fundraising interests.
Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning environmental journalist. He has written extensively on environment and development issues in Africa.