The views in expressed in this article are not necessarily those of The South African
In a submission to the eighteenth conference of the parties (CoP18) to CITES (the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to be held
in Switzerland later this month, the countries argue for a major overhaul in
the way in which the organisation operates.
They believe that they
should be allowed to sell threatened species of wildlife anywhere in the world
in the same way that mineral resources and mass-produced plastic trinkets are
traded on global commercial markets.
The changes to CITES they
are asking for would pave the way for southern African countries to legally sell
stockpiled ivory and rhino horn, which would put immense pressure on wild
animal species already under severe threat of long-term extinction.
One of the proposed amendments
would make it easier to move species from one CITES Appendix to another.
Animals and plants listed in the organisation’s Appendix I are effectively
barred from commercial international trade while those on Appendix II can only
be traded under special circumstances.
The countries suggesting the
changes claim to be victims of discriminatory CITES procedures, contend that
trade prohibitions have not put an end to the illegal trade in wildlife
products like rhino horn, and claim that “more and more species that are well
protected in southern Africa and demonstrably sustainably used” are being
“targeted” by “proposals from outside the southern African region” for transfer
to Appendix I.
Making it faster and easier
to move species like elephants and rhinos from Appendices that restrict trade
is clearly one of the intended outcomes and the authors of the document argue
that “progress has been extremely slow” on this front.
Other recommendations would bring CITES more in line with the World
Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
(GATT), a neo-liberal regulatory regime that facilitates unfettered access to
global markets for commercial goods and services. South Africa and its partner
countries claim that CITES “provides for discrimination” and offers “no
provisions against unfair trade practices”. They evidently believe that what they consider to
be “discriminatory and trade-restricting measures” enacted by CITES could be
successfully challenged under GATT rules.
According to Mary Rice, the Executive Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), “the relationship between GATT and CITES has been explored at multiple CoPs between 2006 and 2013. The parties to CITES rejected all recommendations submitted through that process, so we believe that no review is needed”.
The proposal isn’t the only one pushing for trade liberalisation.
Namibia wants the current protections on
its population of southern white rhinos to be lowered, Zambia, Botswana,
Namibia and Zimbabwe want to be allowed to sell ivory internationally and
Eswatini argues that it should be permitted to trade in rhino horn.
But not all African governments agree. In sharp contrast to Southern African proposals, ten countries further to the north, including Kenya, Ivory Coast and Gabon want all African elephants to be moved to Appendix I in order to protect the species as a whole. Currently, elephant populations in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia are listed in Appendix II.
Conservationists contend that it makes little sense to classify animals of the same species in different Appendices just because they happen to be found within the boundaries of a particular country, especially if those species are migratory and in overall decline across the continent as is the case for elephants.
Charges that CITES is neo-imperialist, neo-colonialist and “definitely
not pro-poor”, because its anti-trade policies deprive rural communities of the
opportunity to “realize the full economic value of their wildlife resources”
and starve conservation programmes of funds would sound less hollow if they
didn’t come from governments that have consistently shown themselves to be
deeply corrupt, captured by powerful corporate interests and ineffectual at
addressing some of the most basic grievances of their citizens from crippling
poverty to the non-delivery of services.
The sale of wildlife products in these countries is much more likely to
benefit political elites and their cronies than the rural poor whose poverty
the authors’ of the document invoke.
In a similar vein, their assertion that trophy hunting in southern
Africa is “well-regulated” is extremely dubious in light of South Africa’s sordid
record of canned lion hunting and
the illegal killing of Cecil,
Zimbabwe’s most famous lion in 2015, to name just two relatively high-profile
As has become routine for ardent supporters of trophy hunting – an elite
activity if ever there was one – they ignore the fact that non-consumptive
ecotourism provides consistently higher economic benefits for
a larger base of people than commercial hunting. What’s more, there is mounting scientific evidence that killing
wildlife for trophies is not possible without detrimental effects on herds and
Sustainable use or profit-driven exploitation?
In essence, the countries proposing these changes to CITES are upset
about the fact that current rules prohibit them from deriving profits from wild
animals which they consider to be valuable products that they should be
entitled to harvest and sell however they see fit. They consider their autonomy
to be unfairly restricted by regulations imposed on them by “ever so many
armchair critics and self-proclaimed experts”.
At the most fundamental level, what is at the heart of this matter is a
long-standing dispute over what is meant by the ‘sustainable use’ of wildlife. In
a modern-day equivalent of enclosure, the countries proposing the changes to
CITES, consider all wildlife found within their borders to be their property
and a commodity that they should be allowed to produce, harvest and sell
competitively in markets around the world just as they are permitted to trade
in ore and agricultural produce.
They contend that they are able to do so “sustainably” – in other words
without doing harm to or causing the extinction of species. Concerns about the
conservation of wild animals in their natural habitat feature little in this
view. To them, there is no discernible difference between species of wildlife
and domesticated livestock, and they insist that both should be exploitable as
products for financial profit.
South Africa is one of the best examples of this philosophy in action.
Over the last decade or so, the government, guided by economists promoting
extreme free market policies and the unrestricted commodification and
commercialisation of nature, has succeeded in crafting laws and regulations
that explicitly lay out this interpretation of ‘sustainable use’, for instance
in the case of lions and rhinos.
The government-supported industry of breeding lions in captivity in
South Africa provides an illustration of the outcomes of this philosophy. Supposedly
proud of its global wildlife conservation status, the country now hosts more of
these caged and commodified lions than live in its national parks and nature
The problem is that wild animals are not the same as commercial goods
and lions bred in captivity for the sole purpose of becoming targets for
wealthy trophy hunters and a ready supply of bones for the market in
Traditional Chinese medicine are neither capable of surviving in the wild nor
have any conservation value whatsoever. In fact, one could argue that they are
no longer truly lions in an ecological sense.
An extinction crisis
Arguments by South Africa and others to expand international wildlife
trade must be seen in the context of dire warnings from the scientific
community. Earlier this year, a devastating UN report highlighted evidence that the exploitation
of wildlife is a major threat to a global ecosystem that is being ravaged by
species extinction at an extremely alarming and historically unprecedented
rate. In light of this, international conservation organisations like Humane Society International are calling on
world leaders to resist proposals for changes to CITES that would facilitate
While conservationists agree that the meaning of ‘sustainable use’ needs
to be clarified within CITES, they do so for fundamentally different reasons to
those offered by the authors of the proposal. They argue that wild animal
species and nature as a whole cannot be treated as supposedly renewable
resources and a form of capital that can be exploited indefinitely in simplistic
economic terms. Any interpretation of ‘sustainable use’ must be founded on
ecological science, not on economic bottom lines.
Global biodiversity, healthy natural ecosystems and intact wilderness
landscapes are not just beautiful and part of every human’s heritage, they are
the very basis on which civilisation is built. They are not just ‘nice-to-haves’,
but fundamental requirements for the survival of our own species. They are a
common good that provides immeasurable benefits for all people across nation
state boundaries. Their intrinsic worth lies in the fact that they are our planet’s
life support system. Do we really want to trade them away in exchange for
short-term monetary gains which will end up mostly in the pockets of domestic
“While CITES does have its shortcomings,” says the EIA’s Shruti Suresh, “it is currently the primary internationally binding treaty dedicated to addressing trade in animal and plant species of concern and we need to ensure that the precautionary approach is at the heart of any changes to the CITES framework”.
Given the current extinction crisis we should do everything to protect endangered species, not expand ways to exploit them to their greatest commercial potential and it is extremely short-sighted and irresponsible for South Africa and other countries to make the proposals that would diminish CITES’ effectiveness.