What CoP15 Means for Wildlife Conservation

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    What CoP15 Means for Wildlife Conservation
    by Eugène Lapointe

    COP15 will be remembered for many of the high-profile listing proposals that failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority. But it would be wrong to conclude that little was achieved in Doha. Underlying the voting outcomes was a greater tendency by Parties to assert their sovereign rights and to acknowledge the limits of trade bans as a conservation tool. If maintained, this trend towards greater pragmatism will make CITES stronger and more trusted as an international conservation instrument.

    CITES continues to struggle under the politicization of elephant conservation, but emotions have at least quelled to the point where discussions on downlisting proposals from Tanzania and Zambia were able to focus largely on management issues. A majority of Parties were accepting of the benefits of the sustainable utilization of ivory as a conservation tool, which is a measure of progress. On the other side of this equation is a growing recognition that banning the use of elephants has cultivated an environment for poaching which, when coupled with inadequate law enforcement and corruption, has undermined elephant conservation in parts of Central Africa.

    Africa remains divided on the issue, but the countries with significant elephant populations are mostly united on the need to use their abundant elephant resources in a carefully controlled and sustainable manner. At CITES at least, it seems that the day has passed when Africans were viewed as selfless and virtuous only if they pursued prohibitions and trade bans. The benefits of the sustainable use approach in Southern Africa now reach beyond the greater number of elephants roaming freely in range states and into the political arena where the benefits of resource utilization are clearly demonstrable. The message for economic and social development could not be clearer: Africa must be allowed to utilize its resources in a sustainable manner.

    In the oceans, CITES is still defining its role. Parties appear willing to consider certain species for listings but reluctant to become involved in commercial fishery management. This reluctance is wise because CITES does not have the capability, expertise or structure to become a fisheries body. But it is also doubtful whether its listings will have any discernible benefit on fish stocks, particularly since CITES cannot bring about reductions in bycatch or illegal fishing. The administrative and bureaucratic burdens that accompany listings, on the other hand, will inevitably put fishermen out of work.

    One of the imperfections of CITES is the difficulty of achieving a downlisting once a species has recovered. Part of this comes down to philosophical reluctance, a belief held by some that without continued CITES protection a species will be over-exploited. But whatever the driver, COP15 demonstrated with its decisions on the American bobcat and elephants in Tanzania and Zambia that even when biological data clearly supports a downlisting, it is unlikely to happen. In the case of species hidden from view by the oceans in which they live, biological information is naturally much more limited and commonly based on projections and models that are created from limited data points. While this should be a sufficiently low threshold to persuade Parties not to list fish species in the first place, it would certainly be used by some Parties to prevent future downlistings. A listing of a fish species is therefore the closest thing CITES can come to a permanent listing.

    The European Union and the United States make proposals to each COP. That some of these proposals originate from lobbying by animal rights groups is no secret. One of the problems is that the science behind proposals driven by lobbyists is often less robust than is required for a listing, as was most clearly the case with the polar bear, red coral and spiny dogfish at COP15. Lobbyist-driven proposals bring at least two negative consequences to CITES. In terms of wildlife conservation, they present distractions, diverting attention away from less charismatic species that may merit CITES attention. Second, they politicize the process, leading the media to judge the functionality of the institution as a whole according to the number of listings that are agreed or rejected. Inevitably, this leads to the casting of countries as heroes or villains, and these characterizations are stoked by the lobbyists themselves. CITES would work better if proposals originated from range states as a result of a systematic scientific process and appropriate consultations with other Parties, as was originally intended. This will require developed nations to exercise greater restraint on future proposals and focus on less ingratiating initiatives.

    Finally, we would like to thank Qatar for hosting COP15 and doing so in such a professional, friendly and well-organized way. The smoothness of arrangements in the meetings and around the conference facilities has surely contributed to the constructive nature of the discussions themselves. It has been our pleasure to spend some time getting to know Qatar, its people and its customs. We could not have hoped for anything more from our hosts.

    First published in April 2010 by IWMC World Conservation Trust, 3 Passage Montriond, 1006 Lausanne, Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Janice Henke. iwmc@iwmc.org

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