A Potential Negative Vote – The Kiss of Death for CITES?
By Emmanuel Koro
It is again clear that the wildlife-rich and elephant over-populated SADC countries will not get the “yes-vote” for ivory trade, at the November 2022 meeting of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Panama City.
According to international conservation observers, the SADC countries haven’t really worked the ministry corridors or international meeting rooms “hard enough” over the past several months, to hope for a positive vote that would permit them to trade in ivory in the future.
All the SADC countries have seemingly done, led by Zimbabwe, is propose yet another resolution to exempt certain countries from the current ban on ivory trade. No noteworthy pro-ivory trade statements have been publicly made at the Presidential level by any SADC country ahead of CITES COP19, no public events with media appeal, no coordinated lobbying effort, “nothing to change the negative views of the rest of the world towards supporting ivory trade.”
As a result, the SADC countries will meet the same opposition that blocked their previous efforts to lift the current ivory trade ban. The major animal rights groups will again claim that any once-off sale of ivory will encourage poachers to kill elephants and profit from this and future sales. A majority of CITES member countries have agreed with them in the past and “nothing seems to suggest that they won’t agree with them again.”
It almost seems as if the SADC countries, rather than try to change minds and prove the animal rights groups wrong, prefer to be the “victims” of the 47-year-old near universal ban on international trade in ivory. The ban allows them to complain that they are being punished by CITES and their former colonial masters for wanting to use their natural resources in ways they find beneficial. It is as if SADC countries think it is to their domestic political advantage to complain about Western interference rather than try to find a solution to the ivory trade ban problem impacting them internationally.
Interestingly, former CITES Secretary-General and President of the Switzerland-based IWMC-World Conservation Trust, Mr Eugene Lapointe feels that the negative impact of a “no-vote” for a once-off ivory sale will ironically be felt more by CITES itself than the SADC countries.
“I am looking at a potential negative vote as being the kiss of death (for CITES),” said Mr Lapointe. “As I describe in my book, Wildlife Betrayed, CITES might have reached the point of no return in its path towards irrelevance, not to say, mediocrity. Having said that, unless we witness a 180-degree turn in the CITES decision-making process at CoP19, CITES survival, as a credible and efficient conservation institution, might still be contemplated.”
According to US-based Ivory Education Institute Managing Director, Mr Godfrey Harris SADC countries are well aware of the unfair and dictatorial politics of international trade in wild animals. This highly restricted and ever shrinking trade has been orchestrated by the animal rights groups in cooperation with powerful Western nations. “So why,” he asks, “do the small African nations continue to ask for permission to conduct a once-off ivory sale that they are unlikely going to get?”
The CEO of the South Africa-based True Green Alliance, Mr Ron Thomson, a renowned ecologist who has managed wildlife in pre-independent Zimbabwe and South Africa, looks for an answer in the ugly past of international wildlife politics.
“SADC countries are not suffering victims, so much as the casualties of a self-inflicted punishment – by default – of all the various CITES woes that have been heaped upon them,” said Mr Thomson. “All decisions made at CITES should be made according to science-based facts (which are ‘in line’ with the principles and practices of sound wildlife management). But rarely is that the case. It didn’t happen, for example, when the ivory trade was banned for the first time in 1989 (COP7). Indeed, the ‘facts’ were then totally ignored. Neither SADC nor anybody else has, since then, honestly and vigorously challenged, this state of affairs. Before the African elephant was placed on the Appendix I list, evidence should have been presented (and accepted by CITES) that proved, unequivocally, that all African elephant populations were in decline; and the reasons for those declines could not be reversed. That did not happen. So the decisions that were made were based solely on animal rightists’ emotions and NGO deceit.”
Mr Harris laments the fact that far from being penalised by anti-ivory trade countries and animal rights groups, SADC countries “keep punishing themselves internationally because they seem to think assuming the role of victim works better for them in domestic politics.”
“As a perennial victim, they can tell their people that their government is trying to solve the problem of conservation and find sufficient funds for the costly job of caring for wild animals within enormous habitats, but the big NGOs won’t allow it.” said Mr Harris. “The politicians and wildlife experts can then claim, ‘you see it isn’t our fault, but the fault of CITES and the former colonial governments’ — all the while picking up fees, honoraria, trips, and gifts from the animal rights groups as a reward for their back-handed support. It is a win-win situation for the politicians of the SADC countries and the animal rights groups, a continuing hardship for indigenous communities and lingering suffering for the wildlife that live among them.”
Mr Harris said that the victimisation arguments are old-fashioned because they overlook much smarter ways to achieve a win for local political purposes and on the international scene at the same time. He has appealed to SADC countries to beat the anti-ivory trade interests of the animal rights groups “with brains, not sympathy.”
“Sympathy lasts as long as the tears stay wet,” he said. “Brainy solutions can last generations. SADC should try for a beneficial result, not just a result!”
Accordingly, Mr Harris suggests the SADC countries’ proposal for a once-off trade of ivory tusks should be withdrawn, not pushed to a vote that will inevitably be used by the major animal rights groups as an expression of world-wide “abhorrence of the use of wildlife products.”
He continued, “Why give the other side a weapon to use against ivory when you have a better scheme up your sleeve. One such scheme has been considered by at least one SADC country, but no announcement has been made at this time.”
While Mr Harris wants SADC countries to stop asking for a once-off ivory trade vote, Mr Lapointe who served as CITES Secretary-general (1982-1990) disagrees.
“Definitely not,” said Mr Lapointe. “For decades now, the SADC countries were at the forefront of the struggle for the recognition of sustainable use as a conservation mechanism for the subsistence of many communities. It would be a shame if their admirable fight for the recognition of their sovereign rights would terminate due to the unfounded and vicious accusations of the animal rights consortium.”
Elsewhere in Zimbabwe, Mr Jerry Gotora a renowned, fierce and fearless campaigner for international trade in ivory, agrees that SADC Governments’ should stop making excuses that they are the victims of CITES international ivory trade ban.
“They should start reclaiming their sovereign wildlife user rights by exploring the possibilities of making ivory trade happen through vigorous lobbying to change the articles of CITES,” said Mr Gotora.
Meanwhile, conservationists worldwide say they are waiting to see who among the SADC nations is going to lead the group at CITES COP19 in Panama, to get international trade justice for their dust-gathering large quantities of ivory and rhino horn. Their value needs to be unlocked through trade and the proceeds devoted to better conservation outcomes.
About the writer: Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning environmental journalist who writes on environment and development issues in Africa.