Press Release: BREAKING POINT – Uncovering South Africa’s shameful live wildlife trade with China
EMS Foundation
19th May 2020

South Africa is the largest exporter on the continent of live wild animals to Asia. However authorities repeatedly fail to comply with the very basics of a regulated trade in wild animals. The legal trade with China is extensive and often corrupt, with glaring violations overlooked by authorities and benefits flowing to a few wealthy traders. It’s also acting as a cover for illicit trade

This is documented in an extensive, meticulous report by Ban Animal Trading and the EMS Foundation – the outcome of two years research which can be accessed here

Incidentally, South Africa and China were listed in the top five countries for wildlife trafficking seizures between 2016 and 2018.

 Key points of the report show that

  • Export permits frequently list fake destinations and that oversight by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is so lax it’s almost non-existent. As a result, wild animals are being subjected to cruel and degrading conditions when captured, bred, transported, displayed in Chinese ‘theme parks’ or used in scientific experiments. Their welfare is being ignored.
  • The commonly held belief and one conveniently pushed by the pro-wildlife trade advocates, including CITES, is that the ILLEGAL wildlife trade that is the problem. This report shows that massive damage is in fact caused by the legal wildlife trade.  
  • The CITES permitting system is not only riddled with loopholes but is fatally flawed, unworkable and essentially designed to act as a cover for  illegal activities as it only imposes SOME restrictions (and even those are full of ambiguities). 
  • The legal wildlife trade – and therefore CITES – is not protecting wild animals but hastening their demise and causing enormous suffering.
  • As a result, CITES as an organisation is no longer fit for purpose and should be replaced.
  • The internationals wildlife trade and the captive breeding and farming of wild animals has nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with commercialisation, commodification and profit.   
  • The international wildlife trade and the captive breeding and farming of wild animals is dangerous because it is increasing opportunities for zoonotic spillover and is the cause of the current pandemic. 
  • COVID-19 has provided humanity with a window of opportunity to do things differently and this must include the way we interact with other species.
  • CITES must be replaced with a completely different-looking international preventative and precautionary legally binding agreement that establishes universal adherence to, and implementation of, a comprehensive and complete ban on the wildlife trade. This must be done as a matter of extreme urgency to tackle the dangerous, inhumane and indiscriminate trade in wild animals. Such an agreement would replace CITES and have as its fundamental guiding principle that the trade in wild animals is inappropriate, counter-productive, unethical and fundamentally unsustainable.

The report says wildlife trade riddled with irregularities with gaping loopholes in the CITES permitting system. This includes:

  • Illegal shipments masquerading as legal exports of wildlife species classified as threatened by extinction (Appendix I) and endangered (Appendix II) by CITES;
  • Brokering and wholesale companies and zoos implicated in the trafficking of wild-caught CITES Appendix I-listed species;
  • The sale of CITES-listed species to theme and amusement parks, circuses, laboratories and zoos and so-called ‘safari parks’ in violation of CITES rules;
  • Untraceable destinations, importers and addresses despite this being required in CITES permits;
  • Enforcement negligence, particularly in relation to likely false declarations made by traders, agents and exporters;
  • Animals traded being untraceable following export;
  • Absent verification measures, and
  • Lack of transparency and access to permits.
  • An intertwining of the legal local and global permit system with illegal wildlife trade.

The report finds that deeply worrying practices are taking place that place both South Africa’s international reputation and the lives of wild animals in jeopardy. These include:

  • The Department of Environment (DEFF) encourages trade in wild animals and their body parts without scientific evidence and without properly assessing the impact this may have on free ranging populations of wild animals. DEFF says its trade in wildlife is regulated, ‘but this does not accord with our observations.’
  • Endangered animals are being caught in the wild outside South Africa, imported into certified breeding facilities and then exported from South Africa as ‘captive-bred’ animals under the CITES permits.
  • Nearly all trained primates are not bred in captivity; they are wild-caught and illegally traded out of Africa and Indonesia.
  • False declarations by traders, agents and exporters are common yet that not a single offender has been prosecuted.
  • The origin of any given animal is almost impossible and once animals leave South Africa it is similarly impossible to identify where they end up. Stated destinations are ‘pure fiction.’
  • Most export permits are in breach of CITES regulations. CITES import permits are often not signed or dated.
  • Local and CITES legal wildlife trade monitoring systems contain extensive loopholes, gaps and opportunities to launder illegal items into the legal market.
  • The source of so-called captive-bred animals are not checked or properly verified.
  • Local and CITES legal wildlife trade monitoring systems make it virtually impossible to reconcile and audit trade information or to cross-check information provided on waybills.
  • The name of the importer on the permit is very often not the actual destination or address that the exported animals will be sent to.
  • In China animal welfare laws governing captive wild animals are non-existent.
  • The idea of ‘well-regulated’ markets is a myth, a smokescreen behind which deeply embedded interests exploit wild animals for purely commercial gain.
  • DNA tests are rarely done.
  • It is impossible to identify the source of baby animals arriving in China from Africa.
  • CITES members are using zoos as a shield to absolve themselves of any responsibility for animal welfare. Far from being places of care and safety, ‘zoos are places of stress-inducing confinement and captivity and there is no conservation-education value to the use of wild animals.’
  • CITES as an international treaty is ‘weak, untenable, impracticable, unfeasible and irreparable.’
  • The research found that, between 2015 and 2019, 32 wild species from South Africa were exported to China. It lists 15 exporters and 41 importers, finding questionable listed information and permit violations in most cases. Many of the animals were being used to perform in circuses and wildlife events or were going to labs for experimentation and vivisection.
  • Of particular concern was the export of CITES-listed chimps and tigers (not indigenous to South Africa), cheetahs, rhinos, lions, caracal, monkeys, giraffes and non-listed species such as wild dogs, hyenas and meerkats.

The report concludes that the wildlife  trade between South Africa and China is ‘massive, ever-expanding, ecologically unsustainable, damaging and closely intertwined with illegal activities.

‘South Africa’s wildlife conservation reputation is effectively in tatters because DEFF has misinterpreted Section 24 of the South African Constitution and is, instead and expediently interpreting the notion of ‘sustainable use’ as a catchall justification for rampant exploitation of wild animals.’

The country’s international live wildlife trade, says the report, is ‘large, poorly enforced, indefensible and shameful.’ It calls for bans on:

  • The live trade of wild animals, including captive-bred wild animals.
  • Captive breeding and farming of wildlife for trade.
  • The consumption of wild animals.
  • Wet markets and wild animal markets.

It calls for a prohibition of the international commercial legal trade and sale of wildlife and their body parts and a precautionary and compassionate approach in relation to wildlife.

The NGOs recommend the crafting of a comprehensive Global Agreement, ‘as a matter of extreme urgency, to tackle the dangerous, inhumane and indiscriminate trade in wild animals.’

The report is part of larger research into wildlife trade which will include Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But, in view of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was decided to release the China section ahead of the final publication.

The report can be sourced here: 

See the investigation by Carte Blanche at: CHEETAH CHEATER

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