Opinionista Ivo Vegter 8 November 2019

How to save CITES (if it’s worth saving)

If the 16 countries of the Southern African Development Community were to withdraw, it would be a body blow to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. To keep parties to the treaty in, animal rights NGOs have to be kicked out.

The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) was founded upon the principle “that peoples and states are the best protectors of their own wild fauna and flora”.

The treaty states that this requires international co-operation. Note that it does not say this requires international diktats, imposed upon people and states against their will.

Yet that is exactly what is happening at CITES. As the SADC Declaration at the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) makes clear, states that actually have wildlife to protect are sacrificing their sovereignty over their own natural resources, and are being forced to bow to the protectionist ideology that opposes wildlife trade and sustainable use as a matter of principle.

Let’s be clear. Animal rights and animal welfare are not the same thing. Animal welfare is a perfectly reasonable goal for lobbying. Animal rights, however, goes much further, and attributes to animals the same fundamental rights one would afford humans. It is an extremist minority view, albeit one promoted by lobby groups that command hundreds of millions of dollars in donor funds. Animal rights organisations are opposed to any and all use of animals. Most oppose eating meat. Some would ban pets, if they could.

This fundamentally contradicts the principle of “sustainable utilisation” upon which both international and domestic conservation norms are based. The World Conservation Strategy of 1980 was written by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), on commission from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with funding from what was then known as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), since renamed as the Worldwide Fund for Nature. The IUCN also drafted the CITES treaty itself, and maintains the Red List of threatened and endangered species.

It says the three main objectives of living resource conservation are “to maintain essential ecological processes and life support systems…, to preserve genetic diversity…, and 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” (my italics).

The Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992 reaffirms both the sovereign right of states to ensure the conservation of their own natural resources, and the imperative of sustainable utilisation for the benefit of local people and indigenous communities.

Animal rights groups, however, reject these principles. They do not support utilisation of wildlife, sustainable or otherwise, and believe they have a right to dictate, from the comfort of their elitist perches in rich countries, what poor countries are entitled to do with their own wildlife. Their policy is one of preservation, not conservation.

Consider, for example, the listing of giraffes on Appendix II, which subjects international trade in the animals or their products to strict CITES regulations. The idea to list them was cooked up by animal rights groups, and promoted by such conservation experts as Dolly Parton and Leonardo DiCaprio. Lobbyists distributed fluffy giraffe toys at CoP18, because the only science they were interested in was the science of emotional manipulation.

Fraud, rigged elections, sold votes bought by the Europeans,” declared Onkokame Mokaila, Botswana’s minister of environmental affairs, natural resources, conservation and tourism.

Wealthy international NGOs bribe poor countries by promising them money for preservationist projects and even sponsoring their attendance at CITES meetings. This may explain why the Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Senegal proposed the giraffe listing, even though the CITES Secretariat recommended against it, only two out of nine subspecies of giraffe are considered to be endangered, they would be better managed on a population level rather than a species level, the measure was merely “precautionary”, and SADC countries opposed the listing because giraffes in southern African range states are under no threat whatsoever as a result of international trade in giraffe or giraffe products.

This was a tremendous win for the animal rights groups, however. They’ve now shown they only need a few populations in a few countries to be under pressure, in order to restrict trade in an entire species, globally. They will not stop with giraffes. They will get more and more species listed using this trick.

They will ignore the success of South Africa’s conservation model, in which private game ranching played a key role in bringing numerous species back from extinction – species such as the rhino, sable antelope, Cape mountain zebra, roan antelope, bontebok, blesbok and black wildebeest, many of which are now far more populous on private ranches than in national parks. Wildlife was largely extinct outside national parks in 1965. Today, thanks to private property rights in game, hunting and wildlife trading, population numbers have soared. Wildlife is now more abundant in South Africa than at any time in the last 200 years, and more than three-quarters of it is privately owned.

In South Africa, about 72% of wildlife ranching revenue comes from hunting, while only 5% comes from eco-tourism, according to Wouter van Hoven of the Centre for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria. The rest comes from live sales and meat production.

In the rest of southern Africa, the split is an even more stark 90% consumptive utilisation to 10% tourism, according to Dr Brian Child, speaking at the recent Africa Wildlife Economy Summit. Perversely, the summit was sponsored by an animal rights group and entirely excluded the consumptive use of wildlife from the agenda. This left it up to speakers such as Child and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa to raise sustainable use in their speeches.

Safari hunting is a vital cog in wildlife economy,” said Mnangagwa. “Profits from hunting are used to provide water and fencing to reduce human-wildlife conflict and law enforcement against poachers. We continue to call for free trade in hunting products as these have positive impact on the economies of our countries.”

It takes about 1,000 tourists’ conservation fees to make up for the hunting fee of a single specimen of a valuable species. Most wildlife ranches are off the beaten tourist track, and have no prospect of ever attracting enough tourists to compensate for lucrative hunts. Many would go under and be turned over to livestock or crop agriculture, causing incalculable damage to biodiversity and conservation.

The idea of private ownership of wildlife does not sit right with activists in countries such as the US, where wildlife is publicly owned and managed entirely by the government alone. Yet the public ownership and government management model has failed dismally in many African countries. Kenya is perhaps the most infamous, having lost some 85% of its wildlife since it banned hunting in 1977.

This is why South Africa’s conservation policies echo the World Conservation Strategy and Convention on Biological Diversity on the subject of sustainable utilisation of wildlife.

South Africa is the third most biologically diverse country in the world in terms of species richness and endemism,” reads the foreword to the National Biodiversity Economy Strategy of 2016.

Conservation and sustainable utilisation of South Africa’s biological diversity is thus of strategic importance in terms of provision of ecosystem services, now and in the future. This species richness provides an important basis for economic growth and development that underpins the well-being of our society.”

It continues: “The biodiversity economy of South Africa encompasses the businesses and economic activities that either directly depend on biodiversity for their core business or that contribute to conservation of biodiversity through their activities. In other words, the ambit of the biodiversity economy is the bioprospecting… and wildlife sub-sectors (i.e. live sales of indigenous wildlife; sale of game meat and the hunting industry).”

If SADC, which represents 16 African countries south of the equator, comprising some 285 million people, were to withdraw from CITES, it would cripple the treaty. It would remove any remaining vestige of credibility the treaty might once have had.

To save the CITES treaty, however, will require decisive action.

First, CITES needs to kick out the animal rights groups. Official accreditation to CITES meetings should require organisations to explicitly affirm they will not oppose the principle of sustainable utilisation. Better yet, prohibit lobbying altogether at CITES meetings, and let member countries vote on the basis of scientific evidence compiled by the CITES Secretariat. At CoP18, the vote went against the science-based recommendations of the secretariat 11 times, thanks to the pernicious influence of the animal rights groups in attendance.

Second, decisions should be based on the wishes of range states alone. The rest of the world has no right to dictate to SADC countries how to manage their wildlife, or override their objections to CITES decisions.

Why should Hollywood stars have the power, through emotion-laden donation drives for animal rights organisations, to impose their preservationist ideology on foreign countries against their will? That is nothing less than eco-colonialism. Sorry, Leonardo DiCaprio and Dolly Parton. Nobody made you the great white saviours of darkest Africa.

Third, animals ought to be managed on a population level, not a species level. It makes no sense to restrict the use or trade in species in range states where populations are healthy, just because there are other range states, elsewhere, where populations are under threat. CITES is perfectly capable of distinguishing export permits by country of origin, and should do so.

Fourth, the financial influence of animal rights groups should be neutered. It is probably impossible to prevent them from pouring millions into poor countries for preservation projects that hew to their narrow ideology. And frankly, that’s not a bad thing. Let them put their money where their mouths are. Let them buy up hunting ranches and turn them into eco-tourism reserves. That would be an excellent use of their money, and would put their ideology to the test in the real world.

However, prohibit the sponsorship of governmental CITES delegations by lobby groups. Make all CITES votes public. Launch a comprehensive investigation into allegations of vote-buying and other undue interference in the proceedings of CITES.

Only through a transparent process which respects the wishes of countries that actually have animals to protect, and upholds the principles of sustainable use and trade which CITES is supposed to facilitate, can the organisation regain its legitimacy.

Failing that, SADC would be perfectly justified in withdrawing from the CITES treaty, and reclaim the sovereign rights of its members. A corrupt CITES, hijacked by radical animal rights ideology, does not deserve our support. DM

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