South Africa steps up to the plate

2016-10-05 12:31

As delegates leave Johannesburg, it seems likely that most will do so reasonably, perhaps much, much more than reasonably, happy with the results of what the CITES Secretary-General has regularly called the ‘World Wildlife Conference’. To be fair, that’s a far better soundbite than ‘the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’. The fact that the conference managed to get through an incredibly heavy agenda a full day earlier than expected will have boosted spirits too.

There will, of course, be people heading for O.R. Tambo airport, or their homes in the rainbow nation, with feelings of disappointment. Several species-related proposals were rejected. Swaziland will not, for instance, be trading its rhino horns.

Not everyone will welcome all the listings which were adopted. Some central Africa delegations, for example, will probably head home mourning the fact that the African grey parrot is now on CITES Appendix I, meaning that commercial trade in wild-caught birds will cease. Since I am not making an intervention from the conference floor, I am not hindered by diplomatic pleasantries and can say that several nations and some African grey parrot traders, not all of them based in range States where the species occurs in the wild, brought this on themselves. This species has suffered, for decades, from unsustainable harvests and the issuance of CITES permits and certificates authorizing their trade has been plagued by fraud, falsehoods, manipulation and corruption.

Unfortunately, the desire to reach consensus sometimes results in the most awful fudges and that seems to have happened with regard to domestic ivory markets. The wording adopted, from what I can see, seems likely to create ambiguity and debate that I predict will continue and result in the subject reappearing on the Sri Lanka CoP agenda. As an aside, I can’t help wondering why some countries are apparently content to halt trade in ivory yet continue to sanction domestic commerce in tiger products.

Personally, I particularly welcome the adoption of a resolution on corruption; it was high time that the CITES community formally recognized the C-word and acknowledged that this scourge requires a response.

But, as ever, my focus today is not conservation but law enforcement. Delegates will carry away umpteen souvenirs of their time in South Africa. Some will be relatively boring reports and documents, alongside lapel pins and soft-toy replicas of species requiring protection by Homo sapiens. I suspect many children are soon to be presented with cuddly pangolins, rhinos, elephants and sharks, ignorant of the fact that they were acquired at some NGO stand and not deliberately sought-out by their mum or dad as a gift from Jo’burg.

What I really regret is that too few delegates and participants will return home having had an opportunity to learn a very important lesson from South Africans.

Relatively early in the CoP, the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime organized a side-event which, although well-attended, would not have been witnessed by the vast majority of those in the Sandton Conference Centre. It consisted of two presentations.

The first, by the highly-regarded journalist, author and a Global Initiative senior researcher Julian Rademeyer, related to poaching of rhinos and illegal trade in their horns. He described the intricacies of criminality directed at this species, the difficulties faced by the law enforcement community, and the ways in which that community is sometimes failing to respond effectively[1].

However, it is the second presentation that I found so very striking. Dr Lyle Pienaar, an intelligence analyst with the Government of South Africa, provided an oversight of the wildlife trafficking challenges facing the country. What was so remarkable was how he placed them within the overall context of crime in South Africa. Although the number of rhinos which have been poached is horrendous, the totals could be thought of as insignificant, compared against the number of murders, robberies, etc. that the law enforcement community has to cope with.

Despite this, the enforcement community is acknowledging, in terms of organized crime and the profits to be made, trafficking in animals and plants slots right alongside smuggling of foreign currency, humans, cigarettes and vehicles and the trafficking of precious stones and metals, drugs and weapons, plus money-laundering too.

Dr Pienaar provided an insight, and only an insight since it is currently being finalized, into the National Integrated Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking. Although expected to be led by the South Africa Police Service, the strategy recognizes that what is now acknowledged as being a national security issue requires a whole-of-government approach, with support from civil society also.  examples of joint Police, Customs, anti-poaching personnel and prosecutor operations were provided.

But don’t just read my description, you really must watch the event, which is available on YouTube:

It appears that the days of what is happening being treated as either just poaching or a conservation issue are over in South Africa. The Rainbow Nation appears to be implementing crime response measures that offer an excellent example for others to follow. It is acting in a manner many in policing and investigation having long been calling for[1].

If South Africa has stepped up to the plate, then Dr Pienaar deserves to be commended for throwing out the first pitch. Viet Nam is hosting a conference in illegal wildlife trade next month. The Global Initiative’s presentation needs to move there and be seen by all those present.



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