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Protection, or Plunder?

Published 12/01/12
By Adam M. Roberts, Born Free USA Executive Vice President

The following story appeared in the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of Born Free USA’s magazine, Animal Issues Digest.

“CITES is a disaster, isn’t it?” The question could not have been more blunt and to the point. The journalist was filming me on a steamy summer afternoon in Geneva, Switzerland, outside the meeting room where the Standing Committee to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) was debating the future of elephant ivory trade, the export of wild-caught gray parrots from Cameroon, and China’s role in the disastrous trade in tiger parts.

“Well …” I replied, choosing my words with care — this was on the record after all — “imagine that CITES didn’t exist. And then someone came along and said, ‘Why don’t we create an international agreement to try and control the trade in wildlife species — plant and animal, live and dead — to try and make sure that human commerce doesn’t drive species to extinction? And why don’t we make it an internationally binding agreement? And why don’t we say that if you break the rules all trade in wildlife products from your country can be suspended? And why don’t we aim to have 90 percent of the countries in the world join …’ If CITES didn’t exist and someone suggested such a treaty, it would never happen.”

But CITES does exist. And it does help control the wildlife trade. And it is binding. And it is supported by an overwhelming majority of the nations of the world.

CITES is not just the best game in town, it’s the only game in town. And with 175 nations having signed the treaty, agreeing to adhere to its regulations about trading in wildlife, it provides a measure of protection to wildlife that wouldn’t otherwise exist. It’s the biggest wildlife treaty in existence and without it countless species would decline further in the wild.

CITES plays a major role in ensuring that wildlife is not over-exploited in international trade; and Born Free USA plays a major role in ensuring that CITES works for wildlife.

I have attended every CITES Meeting of the Conference of the Parties since 1989 and my colleague in our Washington, DC, office, Adam Roberts, has attended each one since 1994. Add our Canadian colleague Barry Kent MacKay’s experience and that’s much more than half a century of fighting for wildlife among us. We’re certainly getting old — and fighting in the CITES arena surely ages us more rapidly as the rooms, the hallways, the bars and restaurants are all filled not only with government delegates, but also ruthless ivory traders, whalers, sealers, caviar and tuna dealers, zoo and circus and aquarium industry representatives, exotic pet merchants, and countless others looking to exploit wild animals for profit.

The Parties to CITES will convene again in Bangkok, Thailand next March and the very future of elephants, rhinoceroses, West African manatees, sharks, reptiles, birds and other species will be decided there. Which way the pendulum swings — protection or plunder — depends on the strength and success of the efforts of compassionate conservationists across the globe.

As I’m writing this, on Halloween, The New York Times reports that more than 200 elephant tusks have been seized in Tanzania and notes, “Poaching has become a curse in Tanzania and other sub-Saharan African countries.” The newspaper quotes a senior Tanzanian member of Parliament, Peter Msigwa, who said, “Poaching was out of control in the country, with an average of 30 elephants being slaughtered for their ivory every day.”

It defies logic then that Tanzania is asking CITES to approve weakening protection for its elephant population under CITES; to allow trade in elephant trophies; to allow trade in elephant hides including feet, ears and tails; to allow trade in live elephants; and to allow trade in literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of raw ivory from Tanzania’s government stockpile.

We have learned some valuable lessons from the past half-century of global ivory trade: (1) The ivory trade is a bloody business that leads to the slaughter of individual animals, the decimation of families, and the precipitous decline of wild elephant populations in Africa; (2) Any legal trade in elephant ivory leaves it wide open for poachers and ivory profiteers to kill elephants, launder ivory and profit by this international illegal trade; and (3) Proceeds from the sale of stockpiled ivory are not proven to benefit local communities in Africa or elephant conservation initiatives where it matters most.

Born Free will stand strong with our colleagues across Africa, from Kenya to Mali to Burkina Faso to Sierra Leone, to say “No!” to any resumption of the bloody ivory trade.

Africa’s rhinos are at risk too, black and white, from poachers seeking to cruelly extract their valuable horns and sell them surreptitiously the Far East where they are used as fanciful aphrodisiacs and bogus medical cures.

Currently, the southern white rhino in South Africa and Swaziland cannot only be traded alive (they often are kept in captivity in anticipation of the day when they can be “farmed” for their horns) but can also be killed as trophies (a loophole that enables a legal international trade in rhino horn). Kenya, to its credit, has recognized the rampant poaching of rhinos now occurring in Africa to illegally supply global markets, and is petitioning CITES Parties to close part of the current loophole by placing a moratorium on all trade in hunting trophies from South Africa and Swaziland until at least the 18th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties of CITES, which should take place around 2020!

Trophy hunting has created a window for a legal rhino horn trade that is now being exploited by poachers to the tune of one rhino slaughtered every 15 hours in South Africa alone. And now some people (particularly those who “own” dozens, even hundreds, of rhinos on private ranches in South Africa) are pushing to legalize the rhino horn trade — something that will only serve to fuel the poaching epidemic.

High praise to Kenya’s CITES representatives for working to protect the continent’s beleaguered rhinos before the horn trade drives them to extinction.

But there are wildlife champions elsewhere in Africa, including the French-speaking nations of Gabon and Senegal, and English-speaking Sierra Leone, which are jointly proposing to increase protection for the West African manatee (or in French, “Lamantin d’Afrique de l’Ouest”) because of serious habitat degradation and poaching, often for the animal’s meat. The fat, skin and internal organs are also consumed in traditional African medicines. In Niger, for instance, a whole manatee carcass can sell for $400 U.S.; in Senegal the meat fetches $2 to $3 per kilo; and in Nigeria a liter of manatee oil can bring $300 to a trader. Born Free will work in Bangkok with our francophone Africa allies to stop the commercial trade in manatees.

The agenda extends beyond Africa’s borders, of course, and we thankfully have champions across the globe. The United States, for instance, has recognized the impact on polar bears of climate change as well as sport and commercial hunting and is proposing to heighten trade restrictions on these imperilled Arctic animals. The United States also is proposing listing a number of reptiles under CITES to provide them additional protection not previously enjoyed: the spotted turtle, Blanding’s turtle, and the diamondback terrapin.

In recent years, sharks have gotten the attention (but rarely the protection) of CITES Parties everywhere as the practice of “finning” results in an estimated 100 million shark deaths annually. This process causes sharks to be caught, their fins brutally lopped off, and the still-living shark’s body thrown back to sea to slowly die — all to satisfy the Asian appetite for shark fin soup. Sharks also are caught in commercial fisheries for their meat and in sport fisheries. At this meeting, protection is being sought by Brazil and others for the porbeagle shark, oceanic whitetip shark, and three species of hammerheads.

CITES protects some 33,000 species, most of them plants, and will consider no fewer than 70 species at the March meeting. In addition, delegates will wrestle over scores of implementation issues: the conservation of elephants, seahorses, great apes, cheetahs, Asian big cats, leopards, Tibetan and saiga antelope, hawksbill sea turtles, snakes, sharks, stingrays ... the list goes on and on. And so do the deliberations and the debates. Is CITES working for these species? Can more be done?

People often ask: Why attend CITES? Does it make any difference? Isn’t it a waste of time? My answer is emphatically “no!”

The decisions taken at CITES meetings are vitally important. Those 33,000 species at least have some degree of protection because the treaty provides it. Take away CITES and that protection is stripped away.

Whether protection prevails over plunder is up to CITES Parties, but it’s also up to us. I promise we’ll stand up and be counted for the animals in Bangkok in a few months’ time.

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