CITES Wars: Elephants, Lions and Rhinos

Dereck and Beverly Joubert at the seventeenth meeting of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES,
Dereck and Beverly Joubert at the seventeenth meeting of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES, CoP 17) in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The dust still hangs in the Johannesburg air as the seventeenth meeting of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES, CoP 17) winds down. Mixed into that murky air are the threats and deals and discussions that make all of these somewhat shady goings-on look like an episode of Madame Secretary.

As I walk away after 10 days of listening in a room that can seat 3,000, and wading through inches of documents to follow the details of every word, I have a greater understanding of the real trade in endangered species. In one case a lengthy discussion by Brazil about the incorrect use of parentheses (eventually they decided that square brackets would be acceptable).

It seems the dealmaking doesn’t happen in these halls at all, or even in the drafting of the documents, but in the cafes and side meetings nearby. Someone ran up to me with information that they had overheard one country delegate agree to support someone else’s position on the use of lion bones if that country would allow the killing of 10 Humpback whales in their waters. Another group met for 3 consecutive nights over the weekend to decide on the language that would allow the legalization of the trade in lion bones from lions bred in captivity, while the same parties all signed a treaty recently that states that bone trade is one the seven most important threats to lions.

If it were horse-trading it would be quite distasteful but in actual fact it is (as the convention’s name suggests) the trade in endangered species, and that makes it very disturbing.

To the naked eye it seems simple: if it’s endangered (and qualifies to be looked at by CITES) then there should be no trade. QED. Stop trade, see numbers go up and then decide. And that is the argument put forward by many of the delegates, or parties as they are called at this gathering.

However some argue that it is the trade in these last 20,000 lions, or as many rhinos, that keep them alive.

Lion of South Africa
Lion of South Africa

Ironically we hear quite conflicting arguments from the same people. So “rhino numbers are crashing. Trade is the only way to flood the market and cause prices to tumble and stop the demand and the poaching.” Then from the same desk we hear; “We need the money from the trade in these species to create businesses for our communities.” When I mull over my business I wish I could find something to sell that would grow in price and not crash markets and if I wanted to hand that fine business to some poor community, I would feel the responsibility of giving them a working model that would not be designed to collapse soon.

The elephant debate was probably the most entertaining (or depressing.) The USA and many others stated that they would support Appendix I, giving elephants full protection from trade and close down the ivory selling. Gabon, Kenya, and many others said the same. Then this small voice piped up, from Namibia. They don’t want the markets to close down. They want to trade. And then… “if elephants are listed as Appendix I we will register a ‘reservation.’” It sounds quite polite but it was a bombshell. What it means is that Namibia would reserve the right to take its elephants and their ivory off the CITES restrictions and trade in them anyway. Huh?

Yes, it’s like saying you will join a club and play by the rules except when you don’t like the rules and then you will stay in the club and want to play anyway, just now the rules won’t apply to you. Seems fair enough!

As it happens this is one of the accepted rules of CITES.

Elephant from Beverly Joubert
Elephant from Beverly Joubert

Botswana made a statement that I would urge you to read online because it is long, but in essence they said that the ivory trade was a killer of elephants, that as host to more than a third of the world’s elephants they felt a responsibility to protect them as if there were already on Appendix I, and would continue to do that. In Botswana they don’t allow hunting of elephants or the trade of any kind and that ‘Botswana encourages our people to live side by side with elephants.’ It is a new way of thinking and in my opinion, the dawn of a new Africa, where benign interactions and harmony between communities and wildlife can exist.

It was an electronic vote and secret ballot. But the machines didn’t work terribly well, so it took an hour to fix and test as tension rose in the room. I looked at my watch and drifted out of the halls to the fields and forests of Africa where, while during the time we waited for voting, 10 more elephants died, just for their ivory. Rome and fiddling and flames come to mind.

Nations voted. The USA changed their long-held stance and voted against the listing to Appendix I. Botswana and a handful of countries were left hanging on the EU and it came in as one collective vote of 28 countries, and the motion to up list elephants to full protection was rejected.

This day, this moment, probably defines the effectiveness of CITES, where anyone who doesn’t agree with any rule in the future can just lodge a ‘reservation’ and carry on as normal without reprisal.

Fear and bully tactics won the day, side deals and trade rose to the top and elephants? Well, it’s is too dramatic to say that we turned our backs on elephants but many will say this process certainly didn’t serve them, it served some of us, time will tell. Arguments will be heard in three years and by then we will probably have lost another.

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