Is change in the air?

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shutterstock_520999411Peter Borchert reports on the 17th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties, which took place towards the end of last year in Johannesburg

What do masobe geckos, silky sharks, Barbary macaques, tomato frogs and Cape mountain zebra have in common with lion, rhino, elephant and Natal ginger? Yes, they are all African life forms, but their real significance is that they and no fewer than a further 24 African species or groups of species were all up for discussion at the recent 17th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17), which took place in Joburg from 24 September to 5 October, 2016.

You might think that events aimed at protecting wildlife from over-exploitation would be pretty straightforward, and to a large extent they are. But often consensus around whether a species might be traded and within what parameters this might take place is distressingly hard to come by. Frequently there are deep divisions leading to dissension and sometimes downright hostility among the member states, not to mention the various NGOs and lobbyists that all push their causes.

A classic example is the African elephant, a species that has dominated deliberations at CITES meetings since its inception, almost exclusively around the question of trade in ivory. The 2016 meeting proved to be no exception. There was a strong call from the majority of range states to have all elephant populations moved to Appendix I, that is, no trade. This would have included the elephant of southern range states such as South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe where populations are currently on Appendix II, which permits restricted trade other than for ivory.

Previously the southern states, where it is argued that elephant are doing rather well, have fiercely defended their Appendix II status. This year, however, Botswana — which alone is host to some 40 per cent of all elephant — dropped a bombshell by voluntarily offering to place its elephant on Appendix I.

Tshekedi Khama, Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, had this to say: “There is a clear and growing global consensus that the ivory trade needs to be stopped if elephant are to be conserved effectively… we therefore support a total, unambiguous and permanent ban on the ivory trade.”

This breaking of ranks within the southern African states would have sealed the uplisting but for the fact that the European Union, much to the dismay and anger of many, saw fit to vote en bloc for the current status to remain. Its 38 votes decided the matter by preventing the two-thirds majority required for an uplisting to have taken place. China and the US also voted against the proposal.

Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa would have been relieved that trophy hunting and the sale of live elephant to zoos around the world could continue. Remember when Swaziland sold 18 elephants to three American zoos and when Zimbabwe shipped 100 elephants, many of them babies, to China in July 2016? Many conservationists including yours truly were outraged. But Zimbabwe has been unrepentant and now plans to sell even more elephant and lion to China, purportedly to raise funds for conservation. In fact, the country’s Environment Minister, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, is forthright on the issue: “The Chinese have inquired about more elephant, baboons, hyena, lion, among others, and we will sell them more without hesitation. We are not going to apologise to anyone.”

And so we continue to have a sort of North/South anti-trade/pro-trade, pro-trophy hunting — anti-trophy hunting belligerence that spills over into other contentious species such as lion and rhino. Of course, this is a very simplistic take on what is a very complex issue.

It is ironic that a treaty that by its very nature should draw people together for the good of plants and animals should be so riven by such individual self-interest, not to mention the influence of powerful lobby groups and NGOs with their own commercial agendas and sense of what is right and proper. But I guess these things are far from limited to the world of conservation.

In the long run I think that most of us would agree that CITES is a good thing; but a good thing that is not without shortcomings and critics. For example, there is a strong feeling that the domination of proceedings by a few high profile species is detrimental to action regarding many other species in desperate need of protection. A corollary of this is that many countries lack the funds and expertise or are unwilling to allocate them to finding out how threatened the creatures within their borders really are, and this leads to a situation where rather a lot of animals and plants that really need protection are not yet even listed with the convention.

There is also a view that a CITES listing negates conservation ends by advertising a species’ rarity and thus enhancing its trading value.One of the wider criticisms of CITES is that, well intentioned as it may be, its conditions are so hard to enforce. And here all the old chestnuts begin to surface: poor or non-existent legislations in countries where wildlife is plundered, equally ineffective law enforcement, porous national borders and poor governance. In other words corruption in source countries as well as end user states.

No wonder the illegal trade thrives: it is an industry that by some reckoning is said to be worth about US$20 billion a year — plenty for greasing palms and laundering services. And to make matters worse, fingers have been pointed at irregularities, even corruption, within CITES itself. I hope not.

Despite everything, it would be fair to say that CITES 2016 did manage to make important decisions on a wide range of issues, such as placing new species under the convention’s trade controls; changing the Appendix status of already listed species; supporting legal and sustainable wildlife trade as well as strategies to tackle illicit wildlife trafficking, such as fighting corruption, enhanced enforcement, targeted demand reduction and supporting local livelihoods.

Generally, there was a feeling that the CITES Conference of the Parties 2016 was a milestone success. Susan Lieberman of Wildlife Conservation Society had this to say: “Science and wildlife conservation prevailed… The decisions made by the gathering countries were based on the best available scientific information. I strongly believe this was among the most successful CoP ever for wildlife.”

Major decisions

African grey parrot  Their uplisting to Appendix I was roundly approved. Essentially this puts an end to the international commercial trade in the species, which has decimated wild populations.
Barbary macaque  Uplisted to Appendix I to protect them from any trade. The species is heavily plundered for the pet trade.
Reptiles  A number of species were placed on either Appendix I or II.
African lion  Decisions were met with mixed reactions, mostly negative. While it was agreed that there would be a zero annual export quota for trade in the bones and claws of wild lion, it left the door open to trade in lion parts from captive bred lion populations that also feed the “canned lion” trophy hunting market. South African captive lion breeders are no doubt pleased, but many range states and conservation NGOs have voiced bitter disappointment that the proposal for all lion populations to be transferred to Appendix I was defeated.
Pangolin  If for no other reason, the Johannesburg CITES convention will be noted for placing all eight pangolin species on Appendix I. These inoffensive creatures are currently the most heavily trafficked wild mammals in the world for the scales and meat.
African elephant  As stated earlier, the proposal to uplist all African elephant to Appendix I was defeated. However, the call from Namibia and Zimbabwe to have their Appendix II restrictions on trade removed was roundly defeated, and the proposal for the development of a trade mechanism was also solidly set aside. A number of measures calling for parties to destroy ivory stockpiles were watered down to a set of guidelines for the management of stockpiles including disposal. It was good news, however, that parties agreed to close domestic markets of elephant ivory that are contributing to elephant poaching and illegal trade.
Rhino  Much to the relief of many, a proposal by Swaziland to allow a regulated trade in white rhino horn was thoroughly defeated. Rhino remain under great threat from poachers due to continuing demand, principally in Asia.
Shark  The silky shark, thresher shark and manta rays were all included on Appendix II, which permits trade only if it is deemed not to be detrimental to the survival of the species.

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