South Africa, CITES, and decision-making

2016-08-20 23:02

I told myself I wouldn’t write about elephants or ivory in the run-up to the 17th meeting of CITES. But I keep reading such exasperating statements and claims that I just can’t keep away from the keyboard any longer.

I realize I’m about to repeat myself but this is such an emotive subject I feel I ought to say, yet again, that I have no horse in this race. I don’t particularly care whether trade in ivory, rhino horn, or any other form of wildlife, takes place or not. I do, however, care a great deal about criminals being brought to justice. Okay, let’s move on.

If you have read my book[i] (and if you profess to be interested in combating wildlife crime and trafficking you surely must have by now!) then you will be aware already that I have been puzzled by illicit trade in ivory for close to two decades. I’m not going to repeat what I wrote previously; for the moment, I will summarize by saying that it simply does not make much sense from a criminological perspective. Consequently, I have been convinced for a very long time that there is more to this than immediately meets the eye.

I have written, and said at umpteen meetings, that we (what a great word ‘we’ is, it allows one to simply cast the blame around without pointing the finger at anyone in particular) have not looked closely enough into what is driving trade in ivory and, especially, what has attracted organized crime groups and networks to increasingly engage in facilitating or controlling poaching, smuggling and dealing. Although, as you’ll read in a minute, I am far from being persuaded with regard to the lattermost activity. I have hypothesized that money-laundering, investment and speculation were at least three drivers which deserved considerably closer research and investigation. I had no specific evidence for this. Call it a hunch. Call it the feeling in the gut of an ex-Detective. Call it what you want – not many people really seemed to be interested or to pay attention.

It was, therefore, with considerable satisfaction that I read the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s World Wildlife Crime Report[ii] and the case study ‘African elephant ivory. Wildlife Products as Assets’. However, it would seem that not many other people read the report. Amazingly, it would appear that quite a number of individuals who maintain they understand the illegal ivory trade, are committed to addressing such commerce, and very importantly claim to know how to eliminate it, have not read the chapter.

I will leave you to read the UNODC findings at your leisure. They question a number of existing ‘truths’ and identify more than one area where criminal trafficking in ivory differs, for example, from that of heroin and cocaine. But there is one sentence which definitely deserves to be quoted here and contains, in many respects, perhaps the most important of all words in the case study:

No charted ivory retail market, licit or illicit, can explain the scale of poaching and trafficking that has taken place in recent years.

If you didn’t, or don’t, believe me, do you believe UNODC?

That simple, stark sentence has considerable implications. For one thing, it means demand-reduction has to take account of drivers far beyond what current approaches are intended to address. It also means that a global ban on trade in ivory is not going to stop the killing of elephants, just as it hasn’t stopped the slaughter of rhinos or tigers. It might reduce poaching. It might reduce poaching considerably. But it will not deter those criminals who believe that, either now or at some point in the future, they can find ways to profit from murdering endangered species. If you think it will, you do not understand the mentality of organized crime.

You may, of course, decide to put that latter consideration aside. Your priority may be to save the elephant. That’s a worthy and noble intention. But you ignore the wider implications at your peril, whatever you do in the shorter term.

Who would have predicted, in the early 2000s, that before very long rhinos would start to be killed in their hundreds upon hundreds or that harvesting of pangolins would reach levels where they began to be described as the most illegally-traded species on the planet? Probably no one. Which is why the species-specific approaches of CITES are blatantly inappropriate; or at least in my opinion and I hasten to emphasize it is certainly not the only one to be listened to. We (there’s that marvellous word again) need, like the best Boy Scouts, to Be Prepared. Otherwise, we are constantly going to be playing catch-up. And organized crime is usually too far ahead to be overtaken. The law enforcement community badly needs some Usain Bolts.

I do not dispute that National Ivory Action Plans have played an important role in generating better responses. I think they have their limitations, however, but I am not going into them today. National Rhino Action Plans have similar pros and cons. At least one nation has been required by CITES to establish both. The CITES Secretariat has prepared a 20-page document[iii] about the ivory plans, with a not inconsiderable budgetary request on the final page.

How much bigger, very significantly bigger, will that budget line need to be if more and more species are to be allocated their own National Action Plan? CITES, and the UN as a whole, has a dreadful tendency to create juggernauts that trundle on for years and years; sometimes with questionable results.

At the CITES CoP in Bangkok, the seven-page Resolution on compliance and enforcement[iv], which contains numerous recommendations, was amended. Among the adopted wording was a paragraph that remains in effect today:

if appropriate, consider formulating national and regional action plans, incorporating timetables, targets and provisions for funding, designed to enhance enforcement of CITES, achieve compliance with its provisions, and support wildlife-law enforcement agencies;

The amendment came about as a result of concerns expressed by the CITES Enforcement Expert Group. Never heard of it? The results and recommendations which emerged from its deliberations are really worth reading:


If you cannot spot issues that still remain relevant, and insufficiently addressed, today, I’ll be astonished. And please don’t ask me why the Group has not met again. I do not understand why either.

But back to Bangkok. National Enforcement Action Plans were seen as a good idea. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?) To “enhance enforcement of CITES”, not just deal with illicit trade in elephant ivory or rhinoceros horn. A few countries, and one region, took the concept onboard, to differing degrees. Not one of them was an elephant, rhino, tiger or pangolin range State. One of them, though, is where the buffalo roam and another is home to Skippy the kangaroo.

Oh, before I move on, it is worth clarifying that the Bangkok CITES CoP which adopted the wording was not the 16th but the 13th. Yes, the meeting way back in 2004. What is it about the Parties to CITES? Why do so many wait until there’s a species-specific crisis before acting? Why does it take up to fourteen years before governments say to themselves, or are made to say to themselves, ‘Maybe it is time we reviewed our wildlife law enforcement policies and practices?’ And why do CITES Parties apparently insist on reinventing wheels instead of using what they’ve already committed themselves to doing? Mind you, the CoP and CITES committees are equally guilty of that too.

Right, I am almost finished for today. But not quite.

Apart from comments on how to end ivory poaching and trafficking, something else that sets my head shaking and has me reaching for the Malt are remarks relating to the number of documents to be considered in Johannesburg and the expected number of participants. Some quotes I read suggest that these totals should almost, like Olympic medals, be welcomed. The more the merrier! Personally, I cannot help viewing such figures in a different light. Am I alone in thinking that they maybe throw up the following questions instead?

  • CITES has been operating for over four decades – surely ‘we’ should have got it right by now?
  • We keep having to add more species or sub-species to the Appendices– isn’t this a poor reflection on how we conserve our fauna and flora?
  • We keep committing ourselves to more and more actions – why do many of ‘us’ seem to not be keeping our promises?

Last but not least.

What I find particularly annoying, frustrating, depressing and disappointing is the overly-critical and near-abusive tone of some of the comments one reads about CITES-related trade, those who play a role in determining how it should be conducted, and those who have some suggestions to offer. Do those who write or voice the critiques truly believe that persons with a differing point of view have an utter disregard for the fate of the planet’s natural resources? How often in life do we have all the information we need to make an absolutely, fail-safe, no-mistakes-guaranteed decision? (I can already hear many individuals responding – that is why CITES has a precautionary principle.)

Allow me to wrap up by quoting some favourite sayings, which remain as true today as when they were first expressed, and which might very well be appropriate to reflect upon whenever the discussions in the Sandton Conference Centre begin to test your patience. They may even bring a wry smile to your face. The words not in italics are mine.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. (Unless your name is Donald Trump; someone else can volunteer for that job.)

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. (Replace ‘democracy’ with ‘CITES’)

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.

It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.

I imagine there must have been times, perhaps several times each week in recent months, when Minister Molewa has asked herself, 'Why the **** did I get myself into this?' Don't despair Minister. You, and the Government of South Africa, have shown considerable courage, and dedication to the principles of CITES, in deciding to offer your nation as a location where the international community can come together to express what, in some instances, will be vehemently and diametrically opposing views. It is seldom appreciated that there is no queue of countries desperate to accommodate an increasingly contentious event. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find volunteers among the CITES nations which will step up to the plate.

South Africa is particularly deserving of appreciation when one considers how divided countries across the continent of Africa are, today, with regard to wildlife trade policies. Even SADC cannot agree common positions on some issues.

It didn't take some mystical oracle to predict the intensity of forthcoming CITES CoP discussions. South Africa did not have to put its head above the parapet. That it was willing to do so deserves recognition and appreciation.

Please go to CITES CoP17 in a collaborative and cooperative state of mind. You are all surely working towards the same ultimate goal; you maybe just have a different route in mind. Travel safely. Enjoy South Africa; it’s a really, really beautiful country, with incredible biodiversity. Be sure to thank the host nation. Plus, if you get the opportunity, express thanks to the rangers and other enforcement officials of South Africa who, daily, risk their lives to guard the largest population of one of the Earth's most endangered species. And praise SAPS, SARS and national and provincial prosecutors for their efforts to combat wildlife trafficking.









AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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