Our Burning Planet


CITES has degenerated into a battleground in the war between Western NGOs and African conservationists

CITES has degenerated into a battleground in the war between Western NGOs and African conservationists
A pair of rare black rhinos, one with its horns removed as an anti-poaching measure. CITES’s decisions with the most damaging consequences for southern African countries were the trade bans of rhino horn (1977) and ivory (1989). (Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A new colonialism, led by US- and UK-based animal protection organisations, threatens the income potential of rural communities in several southern African nations.

Countries in southern Africa host the majority of the continent’s elephants, lions, rhinoceroses (black and white) and giraffes, to mention a few of the best-known animal species. Since the 1970s, countries such as Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa have increased their wildlife populations inside and outside their national parks. During the same period, most east and west African countries have witnessed massive declines in their wildlife populations. Africa as a whole is conserving its large herbivores and carnivores better than any other continent besides North America, despite its relative lack of financial resources.

Given the global biodiversity crisis, one would think that the particularly successful southern African countries would be celebrated and their policies studied, and, if not copied elsewhere, at least respected. Yet international organisations that claim to protect wildlife decry southern African policies while trying to prop up other policies that have clearly failed. Why?

The answer lies in ideology rather than evidence.

Part of the southern African recipe for success is granting landowners and communities that live outside formally protected areas rights to sell regulated numbers of these animals to international hunting clients. These rights provide varied incentives for people living on the land to tolerate wildlife that can be dangerous or difficult to live with due to damage to livestock, crops or other infrastructure. Wildlife thus becomes a valuable renewable resource that is protected by the people who share their land with wild animals.

Hunting tourism takes place in remote areas that are often unattractive for photographic tourism, or where the latter industry is still in its infancy. These areas differ markedly from the well-known picturesque landscapes in other parts of Africa. Hunting is, therefore, the only sustainable, wildlife-based land use in many areas.

Before Covid-19 destroyed all forms of tourism, hunting in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana (before the 2014-2019 hunting suspension) and South Africa made a significant contribution to rural incomes through direct payments, meat distribution and employment, particularly in remote areas with low income from tourism and agricultural activities. The local wildlife custodians invest in their own anti-poaching efforts, thus sharing the burden of conservation with their respective governments. This form of hunting, therefore, not only reduces poverty (contributing to the United Nations Agenda 2030), but provides positive conservation outcomes for iconic African species.

Improved livelihoods, reduced poaching and increasing wildlife populations are what everyone wants, right? Not if you value individual animal rights above everything else.

Southern African countries respect different conservation models practised in other African states, but reserve their right to implement their own strategies that have evolved over time and have proven to be largely successful.

This is the ideological stance of several large, well-funded international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Humane Society International, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Born Free. Their stance is borne out by their consistent lobbying against the legal international trade of wildlife that is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Fauna and Flora, and which increasingly also reflects Western sentiments towards sustainable use of iconic African species.

CITES is a multilateral mechanism that has been in force since 1975 and includes 183 member nations (known as Parties). Its purpose (at least, as originally stated) is not to prohibit international trade, but to ensure that it is sustainable. A two-thirds majority vote at a CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP) is required to change the trading status of any given species (e.g. from legal to illegal or vice versa, or to restrict/derestrict trade regulations).

In theory, these decisions must be based on clear CITES criteria and guided by the latest scientific evidence that reveals whether or not a particular species is threatened by international trade. In practice, animal protection NGOs increasingly influence decisions made at CITES CoPs based on their ideology, despite their status as “observers” that have no voting rights. This puts them in direct conflict with the southern African countries that, in addition to photographic tourism, use hunting tourism as part of their proven strategy to conserve their wildlife while supporting rural livelihoods. Hunting by international clients involves exporting animal parts, thus falling under CITES jurisdiction. Southern African countries respect different conservation models practised in other African states, but reserve their right to implement their own strategies that have evolved over time and have proven to be largely successful.

As someone who has been closely involved with CITES on behalf of the Austrian government, I have watched clashes between these non-governmental interest groups and southern African countries with increasing frustration and dismay. The NGOs do not win votes for their cause by presenting scientific evidence that meet the CITES criteria, but rather by using their financial muscle and political influence.

Disappointingly, a proposal in 2017 to introduce a formal code of conduct for NGOs in CITES, which included transparency of money flows, was rejected. Their involvement at CITES and influence over Parties remains murky.

The conservation success recorded by southern Africa is ignored by the NGOs that support and/or lobby governments that have a much poorer conservation track record. The African countries that make up the African Elephant Coalition, which appears to be heavily influenced by animal protection NGOs, have experienced major declines in their wildlife numbers.

Europe, with its huge CITES voting power as the EU bloc of 28 countries, has also seen significant declines in many of its native species, and struggles to accept the return of larger predators that once roamed its landscapes (e.g. wolves and bears). Yet, this large collection of states with mostly poor conservation records in Africa and Europe continue to impose poorly informed conservation strategies on the few southern African states by easily outvoting them in the CITES arena. Lack of respect for good conservation work hardly provides the conditions for constructive engagement and the mutual sharing of what works best and what doesn’t among the African regions.

These decades-old decisions have clearly failed and may have even facilitated the high levels of poaching that impact these species. No compensation for income lost as a result of the trade bans has been provided to affected African governments, despite a promise to that effect made by the US in 1989 regarding ivory.

CITES’s decisions with the most damaging consequences for southern African countries were the trade bans of rhino horn (1977) and ivory (1989). These bans led to the large and rapid increase in the price of these commodities in Asia, thus enormously increasing the incentives for illegal hunting (poaching). The value of rhino horn, for example, rose to $60,000/kg on Asian markets. The costs of protecting such species against determined profit-driven commercial poachers skyrocketed and further burdened the already cash-strapped budgets of southern African countries that hosted large numbers of these animals.

CITES decisions like these ignore basic supply-and-demand principles, and do not consider how trade bans or restrictions may impact wildlife populations, rural communities and government conservation budgets. The losses in national income as a result of CITES trade bans on rhino horn and ivory alone – and impacts on conservation budgets and rural income – have been massive. Yet the demand in Asia that fuels illegal trade from Africa remains very high.

These decades-old decisions have clearly failed and may have even facilitated the high levels of poaching that impact these species. No compensation for income lost as a result of the trade bans has been provided to affected African governments, despite a promise to that effect made by the US in 1989 regarding ivory.

Given this history of conflict, frustration and alienation of southern African countries (which come together under the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, banner), the CITES CoP that took place in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2019 may have been the final nail in the coffin. All of the proposals put forward by SADC countries were rejected. These included ending ineffective (and costly) trade bans, increasing wildlife-based income for rural communities and providing a formal platform for community representatives to participate in CITES decision-making processes.

The animal protection NGOs had won the day by wielding their influence over African Elephant Coalition countries in Africa and successfully lobbying Western nations, particularly the critical EU bloc.

The position promoted by animal protection NGOs contradicts the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (among others), the Convention for Biological Diversity and the official position of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. These declarations and position statements recognise the rights of indigenous peoples to sustainably use their natural resources. What value do such declarations have, if the same nations that ratify them do not back it up with votes at CITES? Never has the credibility of CITES been so battered as it was in 2019.

On behalf of the SADC countries in Geneva, Tanzania’s Elisante Ombeni Leguma made a powerful closing statement in which he slammed the influence of animal protection NGOs on CITES decisions. He further condemned the Western protectionist approach to CITES trade proposals that has infiltrated African nations. It was the first time for at least 20 years that the SADC region spoke with one voice – and several countries are seriously questioning the benefits of remaining Parties to CITES.

While the SADC might be the political underdog at CITES, one must keep in mind that the region still supports huge populations of Africa’s iconic species and represents 345 million people. Shortly after the 2019 CITES meeting in Geneva, at a conference for the SADC Heads of States in Arusha, Tanzania, these countries reached an agreement for a common regional policy regarding the use and management of wildlife. Their message was clear: southern Africa should no longer be taken lightly.

Fast-forward to today when rural African communities have all felt the economic impacts of Covid-19, irrespective of geography. Photographic and hunting tourism rely on international travel, which ground to a halt in early 2020.

This terrible economic cloud may yet have a silver lining, however. Perhaps this is an opportunity for leaders of the various African regions to consider ways to conserve African wildlife without relying entirely on international tourism. These leaders could find some middle ground based on mutual respect for their different approaches to conservation, without the overbearing Western NGOs pitting them against each other.

This may be wishful thinking on my part, but African nations working together would have a better chance at finding solutions in the face of an uncertain future for wildlife and rural communities than they would from polarised positions. DM

Max Abensperg-Traun coordinated national and international CITES issues for the Austrian Ministry of Sustainability and Tourism from 2003 until 2019. He is now an independent consultant. He worked as a game ranger and safari guide in Zimbabwe, and from 1981 until 1997 he studied and worked as a conservation biologist in Australia. This is a significantly modified version of a paper that originally appeared in INDABA vol. 106/20 (2019), the magazine of SADOCC, the Southern Africa Documentation and Cooperation Centre based in Vienna, Austria. Gail Thomson assisted with writing this version.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hiram C Potts says:

    Whichever way one tries to argue the case for legalising the trade in endangered animals’ body parts, the numbers don’t stack up. In the case of Rhino horn, even if all Rhino horn was “harvested”, demand would still exceed supply by a factor of at least 8 to 10 times. Where do you think that the shortfall is going to come from?

    The “one-off” Cites ivory sales of 1997 & 2008 were followed by a massive surge in Elephant poaching. Tanzania has lost almost of half of its Elephant population in the past 20 years or so, this increase in Elephant poaching has been repeated across most of Africa.

    There are solutions other than trade. For example a “debt-for-nature-swap”, whereby in exchange for debt forgiveness, the debtor-government would commit to invest the accrued savings in conservation & community projects. These countries could surrender their Rhino horn & ivory stocks in exchange for debt forgiveness. The Rhino horn & ivory would then be destroyed in exchange for tangible financial benefits for African rural communities & wildlife & thus end the debate once & for all.

    It is doable, but it will take vision, will power & less greed by all the parties involved.

  • Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes says:

    The assertion by Hiram C Potts about rhino horn supply and demand is simply wrong. The amounts of both the horn stockpiles and production capacity have been substantial (and in fact could have supplied the entire traded Asian market since 2008 without killing a single rhino) and continue to grow. The figure of ‘demand exceeding supply’ 8 to 10 times smacks of uninformed speculation and ignores any possible modulating effect of changing market prices.

    The relationship between the two CITES ‘one-off’ ivory sales and surge in elephant poaching is nowhere as clear cut as Hiram suggests – the sales were highly restricted and poorly set up to deliver a positive conservation outcome. The elephant poaching surge was accompanied by surges in rhino and pangolin poaching as trade restrictions on those species were being intensified, not relaxed. All three poaching surges were most likely simply driven by growing Asian consumer markets, bolstered by rapid relative economic growth, especially following the global financial crisis.

    Consumer demand will most likely persist along with Asia’s growing relative economic power in a post COVID-19 world. As the main article notes, past promises such as Hiram’s proposed ‘debt-for-nature-swap’ have not really materialized. Western NGOs and governments have over promised and under-delivered for decades. Five years ago, Kenya destroyed some $180 million worth of ivory and rhino horn in a big bonfire. Before other African governments (e.g. South Africa) are persuaded to do the same with stockpiles worth perhaps ten times that amount we should undertake a really close and careful assessment of whether the ‘stockpile destruction’ approach has really been worth it and whether it delivers sustained conservation results. It could also backfire by entrenching the scarcity value of rhino horn and ivory, leading to further black-market price increases and intensified criminal effort, with further disastrous consequences for those species.

    This is not about greed: maintaining viable populations of large dangerous animals comes at a significant financial cost, typically grossly underestimated by armchair conservationists. Someone needs to pay the bills. The evidence that the West has done so and will continue to do so meaningfully and sustainably into the future is not at all convincing. We need to consider all options very carefully.

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