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Everything you need to know about Cites

As thousands gather for Cites in Sandton from Saturday, Sheree Bega looks at the major issues, whether the international convention is working and why we should care.

What is Cites?

SA's Environmental Affairs department was widely expected to have presented a proposal to Cites to allow for a legally regulated trade in rhino horn, but it was Swaziland's last-minute proposal for legal trade - supported by private rhino owners in South Africa - that took conservationists by surprise. File photo: Siphiwe Sibeko. Credit: REUTERS

An international agreement between governments, which works to regulate the global marketplace for wild animals and plants to ensure trade does not jeopardise their survival in the wild.

Every four years, the parties to Cites - 183 countries bound by the convention - meet in a Conference of the Parties (CoP). On Saturday, the two-week 17th Conference of the Parties, hosted by South Africa, will begin at the Sandton Convention Centre, where 3 500 global conservationists and policymakers will converge.

How does Cites work?

Species are listed in three appendices, ranked according to the degree of protection they require:

Appendix 1

Species at risk of extinction - trade is allowed only under exceptional circumstances.

Appendix II

Species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but for which trade might affect their survival.

Appendix III

Species protected in at least one country, which has requested other Cites parties for help in controlling trade.

What’s at stake?

Everything, in a world where “our capacity to harvest from the wild” has no limits, argues John Scanlon, the Cites secretary-general. “There are now more than 7 billion people consuming biodiversity every day in the form of medicines, food, clothing, furniture, perfumes and luxury goods,” he wrote in The Guardian last month, highlighting the demand for sturgeon caviar and snakeskin bags, for example. “Demand for products drawn from nature is increasing, and with it, pressure is growing on our wildlife.”

Cites safeguards over 35 000 animal and plant species and their derivatives through limits on commercial trade, but the tussle between boosting global trade, enhancing development and saving wildlife persists, “in what sometimes seems like a set of objectives that are pulling in opposite directions”.

Still, well-regulated trade, under the Cites treaty, “such as in the wool of the vicuña, made into fine suits; meat of the queen conch, eaten as a delicacy; or the bark of the African cherry, turned into prostate medicine”, has shown success.

But up against a $20 billion (R278bn) illegal wildlife trade now “at an industrial scale” - the fourth-biggest illicit business in the world after arms, counterfeit goods and human trafficking - CoP17 is “one of the most critical meetings in the 43-year history” of the convention, says Scanlon.

South Africa’s proposals to CoP17

On the table are 62 proposals to alter Cites’s appendices, including plans to add additional sharks, rays and more than 250 timber species - to stop the plunder of valuable rosewood trees in Asia, for example - and to raise the protection for African lions, African grey parrots and all pangolin species.

The conference will also reflect on the role of Cites in securing the livelihoods of rural communities living with wildlife, measures to tackle wildlife trafficking and improving enforcement. South Africa has put forward proposals to downlist the once critically endangered Cape Mountain Zebra, to increase protection for wild ginger on Appendix II and to uplist its four pangolin species to Appendix I - pangolins are the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world.

Draft resolutions it has tabled include the importance of hunting to conservation - and a controversial proposal, along with Zimbabwe and Namibia, to provide for a decision-making mechanism to ultimately trade in ivory.

Is it important that CoP17 is being hosted in South Africa?

“South Africa remains at the epicentre of the rhino poaching crisis, and the fact the meeting is being held in the country is indicative of the seriousness with which the government is taking its commitment to be part of the international solution to the poaching crisis,” says Richard Thomas, of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

John Donaldson, the chief director of biodiversity research, assessment and monitoring at the SA National Biodiversity Institute, agrees, noting that many of the central issues that pertain to the wildlife trade “have massive impacts for southern Africa”.

Still, he adds: “People need to recognise the wildlife trade is not just about the rhino horn going to China and Vietnam, but about a whole bunch of other species (including amphibians, plants and invertebrates). The trade routes are complex and the system involves many more species than those who make it onto the Cites radar.”

The fact that CoP17 is unfolding locally gives Africans “a real chance of influencing decisions about the future of our wildlife”, says Fortunate Phaka, of Youth 4 African Wildlife. “Very few voices in the trade debate speak with South Africa’s or Africa’s best interests at heart... We’re sadly trying to solve African problems with solutions that will benefit a few Africans and a lot of non-Africans.”

Species to watch out for:

Elephants

The contentious trade in elephant ivory is likely to dominate - and split - discussions, particularly as recent revelations from the pioneering Great Elephant Census have revealed how more than one third of Africa’s elephants were wiped out between 2007 and 2014, mainly because of poaching.

In 2008, Cites gave the go-ahead for a controversial one-off ivory sale, which some academics and conservation groups believe fuelled the ivory trade, while beneficiary countries such as South Africa and Namibia maintain it has benefited conservation and uplifted local communities.

Zimbabwe and Namibia want the ivory ban lifted - South Africa is supporting this move - but face opposition from various African countries that want a more comprehensive ban to remain in place.

“The elephant discussions will be highly contentious, as always. The tension between those wanting to see a framework for regulated ivory trade and those wanting to see a complete ban will undoubtedly play out at CoP17,” says Jason Bell, the southern Africa director of the elephant programme at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Lions

Ten African countries, including Gabon and Mali, want to transfer all populations of the African lion from Appendix II to Appendix 1, arguing this is long overdue as the species’ protection under Cites has been “poorly implemented” for almost 40 years.

The trade in African lion bones is an emerging threat, while one study last year found that tiger bones may be laundered as lion bones using CITES Appendix II, instead of Appendix I, permits. “Lion populations are declining globally. An Appendix I listing would improve regulation of trophy hunting and commercial trade,” according to the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

A recent motion approved at the World Conservation Congress is pressing South Africa to outlaw captive lion breeding and canned hunting, which will be discussed at Cites. Pieter Potgieter, of the SA Predator Breeders’ Association, admits there are “rogue elements” in the lion hunting industry. But, he insists: “We have world-class lion-hunting destinations.”

Rhinos

Nearly 6 000 rhinos have been killed in South Africa in the past decade, though Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa stated recently that rhino poaching is on the decline.

Her department was widely expected to have presented a proposal to Cites to allow for a legally regulated trade in rhino horn, but it was Swaziland’s last-minute proposal for legal trade - supported by private rhino owners in South Africa - that took conservationists by surprise.

Ted Reilly, the chief executive of Big Game Parks of Swaziland, knows his proposal has little prospect of success. It has been met by virulent opposition from some conservation groups and animal welfare activists who believe a legal rhino horn trade will fuel the decline of rhinos.

“Bans don’t work. The loss to the legal market is simply a gain to the illegal market. The loss to custodians of these valuable self-renewing resources is simply the gain of criminals. The ban in legal trade of ivory and rhino horn is the influence of around 170 Cites member states who don’t have rhinos in the 11 that do.”

African Grey parrots

South Africa is the largest exporter of African Grey parrots in the world. “All trade in wild-caught Grey parrots must be terminated to save the species from extinction in the wild,” says Steve Boyes, an ornithologist.

“This move is going to be incredibly important in shutting down the criminal syndicates and misinformed breeders involved in the trade in wild-caught African Grey parrots in South Africa, where support for the avicultural industry is well established in government.”

This has resulted in far too many import permits for African Grey parrots, captured in diminishing forests in the DRC, being issued. “More than 10 million African Grey parrots have been removed from the wild or killed in the past few decades,” according to Boyes.

Does Cites work?

TRAFFIC’s Thomas believes so. “I don’t think you have to look much further than the conservation of rhinos in Africa - the white rhino was on the brink in the 1970s when Cites was drawn up, and until the mid-2000s there had been a dramatic increase in their numbers, with the convention playing a major role in that process.”

Cites has the power to impose punitive trade sanctions on countries that repeatedly fail to implement its regulations, he adds.

However, Ed Couzens, associate professor at the University of Sydney, representing the Environmental Law Association of SA at CoP17, disagrees. “Cites is not an effective force for conservation. However, it has had a certain amount of success and cannot be written off as useless.

“Cites comes out of a long history of treaties, which concentrated on the conservation of single species rather than on ecosystems, habitats and relationships between species. These newer’ threats include habitat destruction and habitat degradation; the influence of alien invasive species; various forms of pollution; islandisation; increased rates of disease and new diseases; declines of species upon which other species depend; and genetic dilution. All these problems are exacerbated by the impacts of climate change.”

Tracy-Lynn Humby, an associate professor at the Wits School of Law, says: “Without Cites allowing for multinational task teams mandated to track and eradicate the chain of wildlife trade from one country to another, with powers to also use harder forms of legal enforcement, I don’t think we’re going to get very far.”

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