CITES Boon Or Bane

Ron Thomson

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Jun 27, 2009
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CITES - Boon or Bane?
The Wild Life Game Column

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora – better known as CITES – was created in 1975. Its purpose was, and remains, to regulate international trade in wild fauna and wild flora.

During the 1960s there was an escalation in both the international legal and illegal trade in wild animals and wild plants, and in wild animal products and wild plant products. Collectively this has been called “The Wildlife Trade”. It was ascertained, during that period, that the illegal part of this trade was second in magnitude only to the illegal international trade in narcotics. In many cases the rate of the illegal harvest of animals and plants to supply this trade was such that, in many countries, the species entering the trade were threatened with local extinction. Individual nations could not control the illegal international trade because once the commodities had crossed their borders they could do nothing about it. This often resulted in large quantities of illegally obtained wild animals and wild plants, and/or their products, being openly imported into countries faraway from their source of procurement.

In some cases, bribery and corruption in the bureaucracies of developing countries was allowing an unsustainable “legal” harvest to take place and this, too, was threatening species with local extinction. And some countries were openly exporting huge quantities of animal products when they had no extant wild populations of the species concerned. They were clearly, therefore, acting as entrepots for contraband wildlife. Internationally, many people insisted that something had to be done to control these aspects of the problem, too.

The sudden increase in the wildlife trade during the 1960s was spurred by the concomitant sudden increase in fast jet air travel that facilitated the movement of trade products around the globe.

In Africa, there was also a clear link between growing commercial poaching and the decolonising process. New post-colonial governments were coming into being that lacked experience and their bureaucrats exercised their new-found powers without discipline – so bribery and corruption became rife. What happened during this era in Africa was much like what happens when the cork of a champagne bottle is suddenly popped – everything effervesced when the removal of the oppressive cork allowed the release of everything that had been suppressed inside for years to gush forth.

The start of a human population explosion in Africa, coupled with lack of investment and growing poverty during the 1960s, however, was a major driving force behind the escalation in wildlife poaching. And what started as a trickle in the 1960s was soon, thereafter, to become the biggest commercial poaching juggernaut the world has ever seen.

That there was a great need, during and after the 1960s, for an international organisation to REGULATE the legal international wildlife trade and, especially, to curtail the activities of the illegal wildlife trade, therefore, there is no doubt. So CITES came into being.

CITES was designed and sponsored by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It is largely funded by UNEP.

At the time of writing CITES comprises 166 sovereign state members, known as “signatories” or “parties” to the convention. As a consequence of them signing the CITES protocol each party agreed to abide by the rules of the convention. Their delegations, at convention meetings, are required to determine - from evidence presented by experts - whether or not the level of trade in particular species is sustainable or not, and to take whatever appropriate action is deemed necessary. The delegations are empowered to place international trade bans on identified “endangered species” whenever such trade is proven to be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild. They are also empowered to register, to monitor and to place regulatory restrictions, where necessary, on the trade in certain other “vulnerable” species.

Species “in trade” are specified on lists called the CITES Appendices which are reviewed, ratified and/or changed, at each Conference of the Parties.

Species listed in Appendix I – the “endangered species” list – are afforded the greatest protection. No trade in these animals, or their products, is permitted across international boundaries.

Trade in Appendix I listed species within what is called a “range-state”, however, is permitted. When such internal trade occurs, its control rests in the hands of the country concerned. A “Range-State” is a country where the species in question is endemic – in other words, it is a State in which the species occurs naturally in the wild.

At a range-state’s request, CITES may permit the trophy hunting of Appendix I listed animals. When this happens the range-state is given a quota decided upon, and reviewed regularly, by the delegates at CITES conferences. Under a CITES-issued permit the trophies of the animals hunted may be exported from the range-state and imported by the foreign hunter into his own state – provided the wildlife authority in the hunter’s home state approves.

Species listed on Appendix II comprise plants and animals that may be traded internationally but only under strict quotas and in terms of the conditions of a CITES permit.

“Split-Listing” is also possible. What this means is that the same species can be listed on the Appendix I list with respect to one, or several, range-state(s) whilst, at the same time, it is listed on the Appendix II list for all the other range-states. This may be necessary when populations of the species in one range-state are “UNSAFE” whilst those in the other range-states are “SAFE”. Trade will then be denied or permitted from each respective range-state according to the species’ CITES listing for those states.

CITES is administered by a permanent Secretariat which organises and convenes CITES “Conferences of the Parties” every two years (or so). The Secretariat has no direct influence over the direction that CITES conferences take – except that it guides delegates in terms of the manner in which debates are conducted and it advises with regards to the rules and regulations to which every delegate is required to adhere. Decisions at CITES conferences are made by the member delegates ONLY, who vote – one vote per official delegation – on the issues that are raised on the agenda. These issues are submitted for inclusion on the agenda by the member states themselves and they are listed in the extensive paperwork that the Secretariat prepares and distributes to delegation heads several months prior to Conferences of the Parties taking place.

In order for CITES to work, therefore, the State members of the organisation have to transfer to the convention a great deal of their sovereign rights to trade, as they see fit, in the renewable wild natural resources that they produce in their own countries. And they are obligated (because they are signatories to the convention) – for the “common good” – to abide by whatever decisions the Conferences-of-the-Parties make.

A loophole has been purposefully included in the CITES articles, however, that allows a State member to reject any decision about which it disapproves. State members have thus the right to register a “reservation”, AT THE TIME THE DECISION IS MADE, regarding any decision of which they disapprove. Reservations are NOT ACCEPTABLE in retrospect.

Any state registering a reservation is, thereafter, legally allowed to continue international trading in the commodities concerned as if the CITES decision NOT to allow such trading did not exist. Because international trade is a two-way proposition, however, both the exporting producer country AND the importing consumer country must register complimentary reservations at the same time.

Besides its sovereign state membership, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are accredited to CITES in accordance with the convention’s Article XI ruling, paragraph 7, which states:

Any body or agency technically qualified in protection or management of wild fauna and flora, in the following categories, which has informed the Secretariat of its desire to be represented at meetings of the conference by observers, shall be admitted unless at least one third of

the Parties present object:

(a). international agencies or bodies, either governmental or non-governmental, and national governmental agencies and bodies;and

(b). national non-governmental agencies or bodies which have been approved for this purpose by the State in which they are located.

Once admitted, these observers shall have the right to participate but not to vote. (Emphases added).

It is the accreditation of these NGOs that has put a spanner-in-the-works at CITES.

There is no qualifying criteria regarding the ideologies of the NGOs that are accredited – like there is, for example, with regards to membership of the IUCN. In 1986 the IUCN was astute enough to recognise that it was, then, faced with a calculated assault on its integrity by the world’s animal rights NGOs. The animal rightists disapproved of the IUCN’s mission statement, The World Conservation Strategy (WCS), and they clearly understood that the only way they could change those aspects of the WCS of which they disapproved, was to join the organisation and bring about change from within. To thwart this attack on its core principles the IUCN introduced a new criterion to its membership rules: All new applicants for membership are required to endorse their support for the objectives of the WCS.

The three principal objectives of what the IUCN’s WCS calls “living resource conservation” are (in brief):

1. To maintain essential ecological processes and life support systems;

2. To preserve genetic diversity (In other words to prevent species losses).

3.To ensure the sustainable utilisation of species and ecosystems (notably fish and other wildlife, forests and grazing lands), which support millions of rural communities as well as major industries.

An important aspect of the WCS is that after 1980 the responsible nations of the world obligated themselves to its provisions by agreeing to model their National Conservation Strategies (NCSs) on the WCS. The above three objectives were then written into the laws of the member States. Thus did the WCS obtain its legal teeth!

Animal rightists can be identified as people who reject, particularly, the third WCS objective. They are people who believe that man has no right to utilise animals – classically, ANY animals - for his own benefit. When, after the publication of the WCS in 1980, there was an influx of applications by animal rights NGOs to join its ranks, it was not difficult for the IUCN to understand the reasons why.

The IUCN executive, therefore, beat back the invasion of its enemies from the very portals of its citadel – and just in the nick of time!

No such qualifying stipulations, however, have been placed on the accreditation of NGOs to CITES and the animal rights NGOs have joined in their droves. So much so is this the case that the number of NGO members at CITES conferences now outnumber the official delegations - and many (most?) of these NGOs are animal rightists.

It is easy to wash one’s hands of this situation by saying that, notwithstanding the preponderance of NGO members present at CITES conferences, only the delegations can vote. The fact that they do not have a vote, however, does not mean that the NGOs cannot influence the way a vote goes. The NGOs, once accredited, become part of the CITES machine in ALL respects – except that they cannot vote. Being able to participate in all aspects of the CITES debates, together with the delegates, however, gives them ample scope to convince undecided delegates to their way of thinking.

But there is more. One of the biggest factors detracting from the integrity and the validity of the whole CITES concept lies in the fact ONLY the range-states are affected – for better or worse – by the decisions made at CITES. And not one of the delegates, or delegations – or NGOs - can be held accountable for any bad decisions that are made. It must also be understood that IF, as a result of a bad decision, a species of plant or animal becomes extinct in South America, none of the delegations from the other four continents will be affected in any way. ONLY the range-states will be affected. It is they who will have to bear the brunt. And should a species become extinct as a result of a bad CITES decision, the delegates from all the non-range-states will likely just shrug their shoulders and go on with their daily lives as if the extinction never took place.

An example? In 1987 the CITES delegates were asked to vote on whether or not the Inuits (Eskimoes), who live inside North America’s arctic circle, should be permitted to continue to harvest walrus. This after the Inuits had been harvesting walrus, on a clearly sustainable basis (else there would be none left), since time began. Ninety percent of the delegates, who were expected to vote responsibly on this matter, had never seen a walrus so, obviously, they were dependent upon the information they received about the Inuit walrus harvest from other people at the conference. These “other people” included the animal rights NGOs whose principle purpose in coming to CITES that year was to STOP the hunting of the walrus. It mattered not at all to these NGOs that the Inuits’ livelihood depended on the sustainable harvesting of arctic animals - like walrus. That nicety probably did not matter to most of the official delegates - either.

Another example! In 1989 the elephant was placed on the CITES Appendix I list despite the fact that most southern African elephant populations were, at that time, already excessive. This was a major coup for just one animal rights NGO – the British-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) - which orchestrated the whole plot start to finish. The campaign to include the African elephant on the Appendix I list, was marked by a multitude of errors – and blatant lies – but the NGOs that contributed to it had successfully, and skillfully, sensitised world opinion to their cause. They won their battle brilliantly. When the results of the vote came through, however, it made that day the darkest one in CITES history.

One of the consequences of that decision was that the elephant range-states of southern Africa shied away from the urgent elephant management action that was indicated. Now, at time of writing, elephant populations in southern Africa have grossly exceeded their habitats’ carrying capacities. Kruger National Park in South Africa is, arguably, c.300 per cent overstocked; Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe – c.1 200 percent overstocked; Zimbabwe as a whole – c.400 per cent overstocked; and Botswana as a whole – c.2 000 percent overstocked. Many elephant habitats, therefore, are in tatters. And the progressively adverse effects this has had on biodiversity in southern Africa’s greatest game reserves, since 1989 (and before), can be imagined!

But that is not all. Eugene La Pointe was Secretary General of CITES in 1989 and he openly voiced his opinion, before the vote took place, that the elephant should NOT be placed on the Appendix I list. The IUCN delegation agreed with him – making an impassioned plea for a “split-listing”. According to the rules of CITES, La Pointe and the IUCN said, ONLY those populations of elephants in East Africa (and elsewhere) that were subject to uncontrollable commercial poaching deserved to be placed on Appendix I. All other elephant populations, they averred, should remain on Appendix II. But this did not happen. ALL African elephant populations were placed on the Appendix I list that year. So the CITES delegations broke the CITES rules in order to achieve that contentious decision.

The EIA then prepared an already primed press to attack Eugene La Pointe for his openly siding with those who opposed the placing of the African elephant on the CITES Appendix I list. They accused him of “exceeding his authority” – when all he had done was to caution delegates to abide by the CITES rules. Whatever - he was fired from his post!

Let no one be left with anything but a clear understanding, therefore, that the activities of the animal rights NGOs at CITES have a very great influence on the proceedings of the Conferences of the Parties.

Other nefarious “goings-on” at CITES were investigated, in the 1980s, by the American government. It was alleged, for example, that certain NGOs – determined to achieve desirable results at CITES meetings – had paid the airfares, the transport and hotel accommodations, the telephone accounts, the bar bills - even ladies-of-the night bills - of several 3rd World delegates on condition they voted according to their benefactor’s wishes. Nothing was proven. And nothing has changed at CITES – except that such “goings-on” just went deeper underground.

I report these things not simply from hearsay. In 1987, and again in 1989, I attended the CITES meetings which were held, respectively, in Ottawa, Canada, and in Lauzanne, Switzerland. And I had lengthy one-on-one discussions with a number of African delegates who had been so “sponsored”.

The wining and the dining of delegates, by NGOs, at CITES meetings is an ongoing phenomenon of every CITES meeting. Nobody can tell me that these acts of hospitality largesse have no ulterior motives!

One must ask the question: Why should animal rights NGOs attend CITES meeting at all (?) – when the purpose of the meetings is to better regulate the international wildlife trade! And when the animal rightists’ purpose in life is to STOP man’s “use” of animals – not merely to regulate it!

What must be understood about the animal rights NGOs is that they would not survive financially UNLESS they direct continuous and emotional propaganda towards the unversed urban populations of the world - who pay these NGOs regular subscriptions. Theirs is a confidence industry that has to be fuelled with emotional controversy and at CITES they find, and/or they manufacture, all the fuel they need. The purpose of these NGOs accrediting themselves to CITES, therefore, has nothing to do with them wanting to further the purpose of the convention. They go to CITES meetings to create their very raisons d’etre – and to act as “spoilers”.

One way these NGO’s “spoil” CITES decisions is to acquiesce to decisions that are beyond their control - then they add a “precautionary proviso”. What this means is that they state their agreement with the decision provided certain conditions are met – and they stipulate that the decision should not be implemented until those conditions are met. These conditions include “proofs” that the trade will not result in “this” or “that” adverse effect. And each time the decision is brought up for review new precautionary conditions are added – each one more impossible to satisfy than the last. This is called “the precautionary principle” of delayed approval - and it works. It delays actual implementation sometimes forever.

If one looks at the most highly emotive debates that have taken place at CITES over the last two decades it is clear that it is the animal rights NGOs who have fomented the controversy. They are constantly throwing matches into the dry grass causing veld fires. They do this at every opportunity, and the “good guys” at CITES - those who want to see CITES function as it is supposed to function - spend their time and their energies wastefully beating out the flames. This is both debilitating and a waste of valuable time - when time is now of the essence in reaching important wildlife management decisions.

The stage has been reached where CITES is now proving to be an impediment to proper and effective wildlife management in Africa – and Africa is running out of time as human population increases are starting to bring inordinate pressures on the continent’s renewable wild natural resources. I feel so strongly about this that I believe African States that are signatories to CITES should insist that NGOs should NOT be accredited to CITES unless they endorse their support for the provisions of the WCS. This would be a reasonable and understandable thing to do because The National Conservation Strategies (NCSs) of most African countries are modelled on the WCS. All that is required to force the hand of CITES to do this is the vote of just one third of the delegations – and African States almost command that one third vote on their own!

There is no reasonable argument that can be put forward to support any reason why African States should continue to be members of a tarnished CITES, under the circumstances discussed above. And there is every reason why they should NOT tolerate the present state of affairs. They have, after all, subjugated a large slice of their sovereign rights to manage their own wildlife affairs to the convention – which would be fair enough if the convention functioned as it was supposed to function. And IF the delegates at the convention refuse to consider the proposal to change the accreditation rules it would be better that Africa, as a bloc, remove itself from the convention.

CITES, therefore, has reached a crossroads. Either it cleans up its act or it will self-destruct. Paradoxically, CITES has become the most “endangered species” on planet earth!

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