John Scanlon

Our Friend of the Month is John Scanlon, Special Envoy for our partners, African Parks. John was Secretary-General of CITES from 2010-2018.

I believe you grew up in South Australia— were you surrounded by nature at a young age?
Yes, we had a lovely property in the Adelaide hills, covered with native vegetation. I felt close to nature as a boy and was fascinated by reptiles, spiders and sharks. I recall the wailing of the siren at the local beach warning us to get out of the water as a shark was spotted nearby! My mother was from a small town in Sweden. Her house was surrounded by lush forests and lakes.

How did you make the leap from being an environmental lawyer in Australia to a leader of international organisations involved in conservation?
I took six months unpaid leave to backpack around South America. During that trip, I met people from the Peruvian Environmental Law Society; it was inspiring. I moved from law to being a political advisor, to consulting and then the public sector. I then took a leap of faith and tried my hand overseas. My first international consultancy was in Guyana and it went from there – World Commission on Dams, IUCN, UNEP and then CITES.

The debate around the ivory trade preceded your time as CITES Secretary-General, and has continued after your departure. Does this dishearten you? And do you think you could have done more to bring African elephant range states together?
When I started with CITES in 2010, there was a surge in the illegal killing of African elephants for ivory, which peaked in 2011. Before CoP16 in Bangkok, all Parties agreed not to proceed with any trade or up-listing proposals at that time, but to focus on combating the illegal killing and trade. Proposals re-emerged at CoP17 in Johannesburg and we worked closely with South Africa and Kenya to manage the process. Things seemed to take a turn for the worse at CoP18, for many reasons, not all of which were related to trade in ivory. Differences of opinion are not new, but frustration is building, and the CITES community needs to be sensitive to differing viewpoints. To move forward with elephants, we need to look beyond ivory and CITES, which is about international trade. We need to think about wider sustainable development issues (as I set out in an op-ed in The Independent here).

African Parks has a good track record in working with African governments to run struggling national parks. These include parks that are unlikely to attract large numbers of visitors in the near future. So, we’re guessing that you have deep enough pockets that you can afford to wait until they do?!
We currently have tourism in 10 of the 15 parks we manage, and are looking at what may be possible in others, including the Garamba National Park in the DRC. We take a long-term view and have a horizon of 20-50 years. Over that time, we seek to achieve ecological, financial and social sustainability for the park, recognising that some have better prospects at generating revenue than others. We have committed donors. They know that not every place can generate immediate income, but, if well-managed, the opportunities these parks hold will be unlocked over decades. We are here for the long haul, to achieve sustained benefits for people and wildlife.

The outlook for African elephants seems unclear at the moment. On the one hand, the poaching situation appears to have stabilised. On the other hand, there are still large ivory seizures being made in East Asia. How do you see the situation?
When one looks at where we were in 2010, we have made extraordinary progress. We have a fully operational International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime. The finance, tourism and transport sectors are engaged, destination states are clamping down on demand and illicit markets, and financing has increased to tackle the scourge. Elephant poaching is way down in Eastern Africa, but Central and Western Africa remain of high concern. Large seizures may relate to better enforcement, as well as illegal traders moving their stockpiles. We are not there yet, but we have made progress in combatting the poaching of African elephants and the illegal trade in ivory. Unfortunately, the same cannot yet be said for other species, like the pangolin and some precious timbers. The fight goes on. Personally, I’d like to see more focus on protecting wildlife at source, so that it never enters the illegal trade in the first place.