The experts, as always, are divided. That much, at least, didn’t change as delegates headed home Wednesday from Geneva, site of this year’s CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) conference.
And if that handle seems a bit of a handful, well — exactly. Conferences tend to be dry anyway, and consensus is hard to reach at the best of times. Nothing is ever simple, especially when all but 15 of the world’s 195 countries are attending.
The CITES conference is staged every three years, but the next time countries meet, in Costa Rica in 2022, they may have to do so without Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe, furious that its bid to temporarily lift the ivory ban so it can sell its stockpile of elephant tusks — estimated value to be at least USD $300 million, depending on whose figures you choose to believe — is threatening to quit the organization and go it alone, much the same way Japan did over whales. Any funds raised from the one-off sale of ivory were theoretically to be consigned to conservation, no small feat for a nation as impoverished and poorly governed as Zimbabwe. The bid was voted down 101-23, in part because, while it’s true that no one really trusts Zimbabwe to follow through on its promise of conservation, past evidence suggests that a temporary lifting of the ivory ban would have the opposite effect of conservation: The last time CITES tried this, in 1998, poaching tripled over the next 11-year period.
Government policy wonks may be slow on the uptake at times, but they do learn eventually.
The conference ended on a generally positive note, with delegates reportedly in a hopeful mood as they left Geneva. The split with Zimbabwe, though, once again exposed the deep divisions with African countries over trade in their exotic wildlife. Zimbabwe’s pain was Kenya’s gain. Kenya, which relies on wildlife tourism for much of its hard currency exchange — i.e. US dollars, GB pounds and EU euros — has worked hard over the years to preserve what’s left of its natural resources — i.e. wildlife — and has been particularly vulnerable to poaching in the past.
Successive Kenyan governments have believed, not without reason, that any kind of legal sale of endangered species only serves to feed the market, regardless of how well intended a one-off sale might be.
Never mind ivory: Kenya is one of the few countries in Africa to ban trophy hunting altogether, unlike its neighbour to the south, Tanzania.
Why does this matter now, more than in past years?
This past spring, a new report from the Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services — another clunky name guaranteed to turn off all but the most die-hard conservation enthusiasts — outlined overwhelming evidence that biodiversity is declining at a pace unprecedented in human history.
Though some extinction deniers might not care to believe it, a shattered ecosystem will erode the very foundation of the global economy, by affecting livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life. And not just in the immediately affected areas, either — the Amazon Basin, for example — but far beyond.
The IPBES report concluded that the exploitation of animals and plants is the second biggest driver of deleterious effects on nature, after the climate crisis and the way a rapidly changing climate is changing the way we use both land and sea.
Pangolins, tigers, mako sharks, guitarfish, crocodiles, giraffes, rhinos, songbirds, Southeast Asian parrots and African vultures all had their moment in the CITES spotlight — in a good way — but as always with any agreed-to set of new rules and regulations, monitoring and enforcement will be key to any success in staving off a fast-looming mass extinction.
One little-known but nonetheless important decision was saved for last.
You wouldn’t know it from following the mainstream media but while Zimbabwe and other southern African countries’ bid to temporarily waive lift the ivory ban grabbed the media spotlight, CITES delegates voted by an even wider margin to draw the line on the growing trend to capture animals in the wild, like elephants, and sell them to zoos overseas. Elephants are particularly sought-after, because every zoo in the world wants one, especially in China, and Zimbabwe (yes, Zimbabwe again) has proved all too accommodating in capturing and selling elephants to China.
It will still be possible for African countries to sell wild elephants to other, faraway countries, but the rules surrounding what is euphemistically referred to as “legal acquisition” suddenly got a lot tighter. The zoo trade in baby elephants has been banned internationally. (Canada, not doing itself any favours where conservationists are concerned, was one of the very few countries to vote against the new rules.)
CITES delegates also voted to rein in online wildlife trafficking, after the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the NGOs TRAFFIC and the self-explanatory Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online presented papers on the illegal trade in songbirds.
After all, as the pioneering conservationist Archie Carr once said, “For most of the wild things on Earth, the future must depend on the conscience of humankind.”