Can Cites halt the gruesome wildlife trade?

18 September 2016 - 02:00 By Theressa Frantz

Fight to save endangered wildlife rests on watershed Johannesburg conference, writes Theressa Frantz.Forty years ago, the multibillion-dollar international trade in endangered wildlife was largely a free-for-all. Many countries had imposed export restrictions to try to protect endangered species, but there was no global trade agreement in place to provide a standard for such trade.So illegally exported products - such as rhino horns or leopard skins - could still be legally imported into most countries.This made a mockery of national efforts to save endangered species, while also undermining hopes that countries could sustainably boost their legal wildlife trade for the benefit of species and people.story_article_left1The answer - or at least the agreed approach - was the launch in 1975 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.One of its earliest decisions was to ban all international trade in rhino horn since demand was rapidly driving black rhinos towards extinction.With African rhino numbers currently at their highest for 20 years, it can be argued that the ban supported African countries in bringing about rhino recovery.However, four decades later a new wave of poaching is threatening rhino populations in southern and east Africa.And, with a raft of rhino issues up for debate at the 17th Cites Conference of the Parties, critics are questioning whether the convention has the teeth to make a difference.Cites can certainly point to an enormous body of work, with more than 35,000 species of animals and plants now under some form of international trade regulation.Some successes are evident in well-regulated legal trade (such as crocodiles and vicuña) and in global trade bans (there was a steep decrease in elephant poaching after the international ban in 1989 - that is, until a new wave of illegal killing began in 2007).But the pressure keeps growing as the world's population rises and consumer demand for wildlife and wildlife products - for food, medicine, furniture and status - soars with it. Vietnam and Mozambique have to report on their efforts to crack down on the illegal rhino horn trade. With little progress, Vietnam will be under severe scrutiny In response, Cites has grown bigger and more ambitious. Fittingly starting on Heritage Day - September 24 - COP17 in South Africa will be the largest yet, with a record 183 parties and an unprecedented number of trade proposals and agenda items.For two weeks, conservation leaders from around the world will gather in Johannesburg to debate changes to the levels of protection afforded to more than 60 categories of animals and plants, as well as other critical issues - from tackling corruption to reducing demand and combating wildlife crime, and how to make the convention more effective.With international organised crime networks driving a global surge in illegal wildlife trade and the legal sustainable use of threatened wildlife increasingly in the firing line in many countries, we can expect to hear a lot of criticism of the convention up to and during this meeting.Some animal rights activists will say that its measures do not go far enough, and that allowing any consumptive use of charismatic animals such as elephants and lions is repugnant. On the other side of the debate, supporters of sustainable use will argue that the convention has become subservient to a Western animal rights agenda and that it has effectively become neocolonial.The convention recognises that people and states are the best protectors of their own wildlife, but that international co-operation is essential for the conservation of certain species due to over-exploitation.Cites is about far more than just whether to ban trade in endangered species. The convention can compel countries to take specific measures to tackle illegal trade - actions that reinforce existing bans. If countries do not comply, they face the threat of Cites trade sanctions. The fact that Cites is attracting criticism from diametrically opposed camps is the best evidence that it is doing something right Nineteen Asian and African countries implicated in the illegal ivory trade are part of the national ivory action plan process, which was launched at the previous COP and is beginning to show results. Meanwhile, Vietnam and Mozambique have to report on their efforts to crack down on the illegal rhino horn trade. With little progress, Vietnam will be under severe scrutiny.As will Cites itself.It is a consensus-oriented body, but it can take decisions by a two-thirds majority when required, so some debates have inevitably become politicised.On two recent occasions the convention came close to banning the international trade in polar bears, despite the fact that trade is not a threat, especially compared with climate change.On the other hand, fisheries' interests delayed for many years the implementation of necessary measures to regulate trade in some shark species.Debates on elephants and ivory have often proved a bitter issue and this year's COP will be no different, especially as the Great Elephant Census has just detailed an alarming decrease in Africa's savanna elephants since 2007, primarily due to poaching and illegal trade.Other issues - including rhinos and sharks - are also likely to test Cites's prized consensus as countries and conservationists argue for what they believe will best safeguard endangered wildlife and support the sustainable development of communities.story_article_right2There will no doubt be opportunities for guarded optimism. Most debates will focus on additional protection - for species as diverse as pangolins, thresher sharks, rosewood trees and the psychedelic rock gecko - but governments will also vote on whether to reduce trade restrictions on species that have recovered.Seeing the convention agree that the trade rules on the peregrine falcon or mountain zebra can be relaxed in the light of the improved status of these species shows that Cites can work.Like all international treaties, Cites has had its fair share of successes and failures. But the fact that it is attracting criticism from diametrically opposed camps is the best evidence that it is doing something right.It will be a tough two weeks. But if bold, ambitious measures can be agreed - such as the threat of sanctions on Vietnam if it does not agree to concrete, time-bound actions on the rhino horn trade or rigorous, independent monitoring of the national ivory action plan process - this COP will be viewed in future as one of the most important moments in the fight to conserve the world's endangered wildlife.Frantz is the head of WWF South Africa's Environmental Programmes Unit..

There’s never been a more important time to support independent media.

From World War 1 to present-day cosmopolitan South Africa and beyond, the Sunday Times has been a pillar in covering the stories that matter to you.

For just R80 you can become a premium member (digital access) and support a publication that has played an important political and social role in South Africa for over a century of Sundays. You can cancel anytime.

Already subscribed? Sign in below.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.