Where the **** was South Africa?

2014-02-15 17:04

Since the European Commission was in town (and it speaks for 27 Member States), if you add them to the other 40 or so nations in attendance last week, when London was the venue for an unprecedented event, you could argue that almost 70 countries were represented. Nearly a dozen international organizations participated. The Secretary-General of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) was there, as was the President of Interpol and the head of the World Customs Organization. The British Foreign Secretary, who probably has plenty on his plate already with no shortage of trouble and strife across the globe, took the time to speak eloquently in support of the cause.

The ‘cause’? Well, they had all come together to discuss wildlife crime. Finally, senior political figures from around the globe had agreed that it was time (some might say long-overdue) for recognition to be given to how sophisticated and organized such criminality has become. At the end of the conference, during which the Prince of Wales, flanked by his two sons, spoke passionately about the urgent need to respond effectively, the nations agreed a joint Declaration.

See:  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/280890/london-wildlife-conference-declaration-140213.pdf

Now, my regular readers might expect me to be rather cynical of such a gathering. Well, yes I am and yes I was. But I like the outcome and it deserves to be very warmly welcomed. The Declaration is not earth-shattering but it refers to many, although not all, of the essential ingredients if we are to protect endangered species and bring offenders to justice.

I am sorry, very sorry, that there wasn't a greater involvement from the law enforcement community but I have got rather used to that. Someone asked me this week why Customs and Police do not attend more of these meetings. The answer is very simple – the organizers don’t invite them!

I just hope that the head of every participating delegation will, when they get home, sit down with their Police Commissioner, Director General of Customs and head of the nation's anti-poaching forces and discuss how they can implement the action points in the Declaration and live up to the commitments made in London.

And I hope similar meetings will be convened in those countries that did not send a delegation to England. Which brings me to my point.

South Africa is, arguably, the nation in the world that is currently experiencing the most determined, sophisticated and organized wildlife crime. The country lost over 1,000 rhinos to poachers last year. Officers in its national parks and reserves risk their lives daily to protect those animals and other endangered species. Some of their colleagues have succumbed to corruption by those behind the illegal trade in rhino horn. Foreign nationals have regularly travelled to South Africa to engage in fraudulent, pseudo-hunting in order to acquire rhino horn as a game trophy that they can subsequently sell, for thousands and thousands of dollars, into the black markets of Asia. South African citizens, legitimately in possession of horns, have been bribed to surrender them, which are subsequently smuggled out of the country.

South Africa needs the support of countries around the world to help protect its rhinos, identify the criminals responsible for poaching and smuggling and bring them before the courts.

The government of South Africa needs to constantly reaffirm to its anti-poaching staff, its military and its SARS and SAPS officers that what they are doing is valued and that they can always rely on their politicians and civil servants to do their utmost to support them.

South Africa is hosting the next CITES conference in 2016. It presumably hopes to welcome the 179 countries that form the CITES community and presumably hopes their delegations are looking forward to visiting your beautiful country.

South Africa’s politicians and decision-makers are currently struggling with the question of whether they should try and re-open legal trade in rhino horn, in the hope that it would put an end to, or significantly reduce, the ever-increasing poaching of recent years. Whatever decision is reached, and particularly if trade is the favoured option, South Africa is going to need assistance and encouragement from across the globe. And need it big-time.

China and Viet Nam, at which fingers are regularly pointed as being the destinations for much of the illegal trade in animals and plants, had the guts to show face and actively engage.

So, why oh why was South Africa not represented at the London conference?

When I asked that question of someone attending the event I was told that the date clashed with President Zuma’s State of the Nation Address. I mean no disrespect to your country’s Head of State, but this isn’t exactly like Winston Churchill speaking to Britain during WWII, when every single citizen used to huddle round the radio to catch each and every word he uttered. I also cannot believe that the regime in your country is so oppressive that no politician or government official can leave the country whilst their president is in front of a microphone. Perhaps there was some other vital matter that everyone had to attend to?

Until now, I have had nothing but respect for the way South Africa has responded to its current wildlife crime crisis. Readers will know the admiration I have for your law enforcers. What sort of message was sent to them by their government on Thursday?

If it is any consolation whatsoever to the rainbow nation, India – guardian to the majority of the world’s shrinking tiger populations – seemingly could not be bothered to turn up either.

I trust the relevant people in both countries, responsible for the decision not to participate, are hanging their heads in shame this weekend. If they are not, they shouldn’t go back to work on Monday morning.

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