Frontline Online: Conservation’s New Winners & Losers

| 19th March 2013

In 2011, some 17,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks

The CITES COP16 (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) has just ended in Bangkok, to very mixed reviews. Lorna Howarth reports on the good news, and the bad.
Canada remains the only country in the world to allow the trade of polar bears

In the first three months of 2013, 146 African rhinoceroses were killed. Fact. That’s three rhinos a week – a devastating death toll for this magnificent creature, which has the highest CITES protection: Appendix I – meaning trade of these wild animals is illegal. And there hang the horns of this particular dilemma – there is still a massive market for rhino horn in Vietnam and other Asian countries, and until those countries effectively enforce their CITES obligations (which is not currently the case) then the poaching will continue.

The situation is the same for African elephants, which are also Appendix I protected species, but which are poached mercilessly: over 17,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory in 2011. The CITIES Standing Committee stated that, “There is a ‘Gang of Eight’ countries – Thailand, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China – that MUST completely stop trading in ivory or face severe sanctions.” What those sanctions are was not stated, but whilst there is a demand for ivory, the supply will continue.

In signatory countries to the CITES convention where poaching takes place, ever more sophisticated poaching techniques are being used, such as night vision equipment, high-velocity rifles and helicopters. Stopping these illegal activities is more and more challenging, requiring huge investment by individual governments whose own economic difficulties mean that the money allocated for conservation issues is often inadequate. Ultimately however, it is the demand for ivory that fuels the killing, so prohibition must focus on ivory and rhino trading.

Before the CITES COP16 got started, a global petition called on Thailand to abolish its ivory trade. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra responded that the ivory trade would be abolished in Thailand, but gave no timeline to establish the laws necessary to enforce the ban. Until that time the ivory trade will continue – and the only thing civil society can do is raise awareness in those countries that continue to flout the CITES conventions and make it clear that ivory and rhino horn trading is an abomination.

The news that a proposal by the US to ban cross-border trade in polar bears and their parts was defeated at the CITES conference, was greeted with a chorus of disbelief by many wildlife and conservation NGOs, but Terry Audla, President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said he felt proud and happy that the international community had agreed that the way the Inuit manage the polar bear is working. “It is our livelihood,” he said. “We don’t have cows or pigs or chickens. What we have are polar bears, seals and walrus. This is how we make our living. This is how we put food on the table.”

The United States had proposed that the protection of polar bears was upgraded to CITES Appendix I meaning that trade in their pelts and paws and other body parts would become illegal. The US and Russia argued that it is likely that two-thirds of the polar bear population will disappear by 2050. However, Canada emphatically opposed the proposal, stating that “the relationship between sea ice loss and polar bear declines is subject to uncertainty,” and stating that the export of up to 600 polar bear pelts and paws a year had no impact on numbers. Canada remains  the only country in the world to allow the trade of polar bears.

Again, if there were no market for these iconic and highly threatened animals, trade would cease, or at least only continue within the Inuit communities. However, what is perhaps more insidious are the conditions that need to be met before polar bears would automatically be granted CITES Appendix I protection. Appendix I protection requires a ‘devastated population that will continue to plummet’. So rather than enact the Precautionary Principle and stop that from happening, it seems CITES will wait until it is too late for polar bears before it enforces the proper protection.

Less contentiously – and despite last minute attempts by China and Japan to wine and dine delegates (on shark’s fin soup perhaps?) to persuade them to vote against the proposal – several shark species have been included in CITES Appendix II. They are the oceanic white-tip shark, great hammerhead sharks (plus the smooth hammerhead and scalloped hammerhead), porbeagle sharks and manta rays. These animals have been heavily fished for their fins and gill-rakers despite their proven value to ecosystem health and global ecotourism.

Appendix II includes 21,000 species that are ‘not necessarily threatened with extinction, but which may become so unless trade in such species is subject to strict regulation’. Shawn Heinrichs, leader of Manta Ray of Hope Program, said, “This is truly a great day for sharks and mantas - a day long overdue. The addition of these shark and manta species to CITES Appendix II is an important step forward in stemming the incredibly destructive trade.” Three species of turtle were also listed on Appendix II.

Other welcome news was the granting of international protection to threatened Siam rosewood species, which is seen as a major step forward in saving the species from extinction and will help efforts to curb the explosion of violence around the illegal trade in this precious wood.

The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has been supporting the efforts of the Thai government to secure listing for Siam rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis) on Appendix II. “This is a significant step forward for this desperately threatened species,” said Faith Doherty, head of EIA’s Forests Campaign. “Finally, we have a legal tool to use in China, the main destination, where rosewood prices on the black market are spurring a flood of smuggling and associated violence.”
Thailand’s last forests are increasingly threatened by illegal logging, the major driver of which is the multi-million dollar rosewood trade to feed China’s desire for luxury  ‘Hongmu’ antique-style furniture. The increasing scarcity of Siam rosewood has driven the prices offered by international traders to as much as US$50,000 per cubic meter. With so much money involved, official corruption facilitates the trade at every stage, from forests to the borders and ports.
So CITES COP16 closed in Bangkok with mixed reactions: from despair that the plight of the polar bear is still not recognised and consternation over the loopholes that still exist in the ivory and rhino horn trade; to delight that other species are now better protected.

Ultimately though, it is the trade in these species that has to stop in order to protect them completely. If partaking of shark-fin soup becomes as socially unacceptable and shunned as, say, smoking is now; if Hongmu furniture is seen as grotesque and highly damaging; if ivory jewellery is eschewed – then these species have a chance.

It is up to all of us – not just governments and NGOs to raise awareness of the ethics behind our consumer choices.

Lorna Howarth is a writer and environmentalist. She is a contributing editor to Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and the founder of a small independent publishing agency:

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Image courtesy of Sabah Wildlife Department.

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Canada remains the only country in the world to allow the trade of polar bears

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