If CITES — the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — did
not exist we would want to invent it. This treaty was signed, and its Secretariat
authorised, in 1975 to regulate commerce in wild flora and fauna to prevent their
extinction. It was the proper step to take to stop indiscriminate and irreversible
damage to wildlife species.
Over the years, however, the Geneva-based organisation charged with enforcing the
treaty’s provisions, has been high-jacked by Western animal rights groups. Their goal
is to block all forms of trade in wildlife products even in cases where it is
scientifically justified. In particular, the CITES organisation has failed to serve the
Southern African countries, specifically with regard to their elephant and rhino
populations. Therefore, CITES’ relevance to the member states of the Southern
African Development Community (SADC) on matters affecting these iconic species is
now highly questionable.
CITES has frustrated many people in Southern Africa ranging from presidents and
government ministers to the leaders of the rural communities that live side-by-side
with these animals. The frustration is most palpable where rural communities pay
the costs of living with wild animals without realising any of the benefits. Worse, the
trade ban in elephant ivory and rhino products imposed at the insistence of the
animal rights groups have not stopped poaching nor diminished interest in the
products, but they have eliminated local communities’ benefits from wildlife.
Ironically, trade bans only help to increase poaching. Professor Marshall Murphree
writes in a recent issue of Conservation: “Everyone agrees that the illegal ivory trade
continues despite the international trade ban. It has [in fact] been an abject failure.
CITES has had 27 years to evaluate [this] experiment and, far from being part of the
solution to illegal elephant killing in Africa, the ban must be seen as part of the
But this lesson has never been learnt by the animals rights groups, some CITES
member states or the CITES Secretariat because it is something they didn’t want to
learn. The animal rights groups attract enormous contributions from Western donors
by claiming that donated money will stop poaching from driving iconic species into
extinction. Apart from paying big salaries for animal rights groups’ staff, the money
also helps fund CITES delegates’ travel and member country involvement in CITES
activities as well as Secretariat expenses. Little, if anything, goes toward protecting
the animals. This corrupt cycle will continue unless the countries, whose wildlife is
suffering at the hands of CITES, are willing to end it.
Japan did just that in a recent decision to resign its membership in the International
Whaling Commission (IWC). Japan saw how the big international non-governmental
organisations influence the prevention of any form of trade in wild species — even
where the evidence is clear that some whale species are no longer in danger. Japan
will now resume whaling in its territorial and economic zone waters.
The countries of SADC should take the Japanese example to heart — declaring now
that if CITES votes to enforce policies that individual SADC countries deem to have
failed its wildlife, rural populations or national interests – they will in response refuse
to abide by such harmful decisions.
“At every [major CITES] meeting the animal rights groups spend their time illegally
‘buying’ votes from sovereign states to the extent that they now control all the
important [issues] on the agenda (either by means of outright bribery; or by means of
‘underwriting’ the delegates’ expenses at the convention),” said Ron Thomson an
ecologist and CEO of the South Africa-based True Green Alliance. “Sovereign states
can no longer rely on CITES for an honest outcome when it comes to ‘trade in
If CITES continues to maintain a position that bans trade in elephants and rhino
products, serious environmental damage will be done in the Southern African region.
If these keystone populations were to collapse, it could bring down the entire
ecosystem that people depend on for their food and livelihoods. “The reality in
Africa is that no wildlife will survive this century unless its ‘needs’ are integrated with
the ‘needs’ of Africa’s rural people in a state of symbiotic harmony,” said Mr
The CITES rhino and elephant ‘conservation ship’ is sinking. Shouldn’t SADC countries
work for its replacement or reform? If they don’t do something, their elephant and
rhino populations will be victims of a now well-known and man-made wildlife die-
Responding to this danger, the world’s largest rhino breeder, South Africa-based
John Hume said: “At a certain point, sovereign countries need to do as Japan did to
the IWC; ditch conservation partnerships that do not benefit their wildlife and the
Will SADC countries make a courageous and principled decision before the CITES
meeting in Sri Lanka in May 2019 that responds to the needs of their elephants,
rhinos and people? We hope so. Africa can no longer surrender its sovereignty to
Western animal rights organisations that are intent on controlling its wildlife to
support their fundraising interests.
By Emmanuel Koro
About the writer: Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning
environmental journalist who has written extensively on environment and development
issues in Africa.
The Express News