Challenges to CITES
Conservationists can never afford to rest on their laurels, not even when they appear to have a solid consensus of international opinion behind them.
For nearly fifty years, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has stood as the global standard for protecting endangered plants and animals. At the time of writing, 182 states plus the European Union are parties to CITES, making it one of the widest and most enduring conservation agreements.
However, towards the end of last year, countries from the Southern African Development Community lodged reservations, objecting to a tightening of the rules on the trade in live elephants and rhinoceroses. This tightening of the rules, adopted at the latest CITES meeting (CoP18) in Geneva last year, introduced new restrictions on what constitutes “appropriate and acceptable destinations” for the sale of elephants taken from the wild. There are also new guidelines to prevent the sale of elephant ivory or rhino horn from any live animals traded, or from their offspring, and to prevent them being used for commercial hunting. (The resolution can be read in full here).
The SADC countries are signaling that they intend to carry on as if this resolution had not been adopted. In practice, they would only be able to trade with each other or non-CITES parties. However, it is worth remembering the sale last year by Zimbabwe of 32 juvenile elephants to China, even as Zimbabwe’s High Court was weighing a request for an injunction.
Proponents of the trade in wild animals and ivory argue that this is a sovereign matter for the countries concerned. Some go as far as to suggest that CITES has been highjacked by western NGOs.
The countries concerned are seeking to set a precedent by lodging reservations against a resolution, and they are likely to be challenged during the next CITES Standing Committee meeting. Nevertheless, the countries have put down a marker. There is an implicit threat that they could leave CITES altogether, which could give them political leverage.
The problem with individual countries seeking exceptions from CITES regulations is that loopholes can end up providing cover for illegal trade. The EPI is committed to putting ivory stockpiles beyond economic use and maintaining the international ban on the ivory trade, while encouraging the closure of domestic markets. Poaching is already a serious problem – exceptions to CITES rules would risk fueling it further.