COP17 ivory trade proposal at risk of repeating 2008 mistake – study
Clarissa Hughes
21 June 2016
On Heritage Day this year South Africa will be hosting the 17th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP) in Johannesburg which will address the international legal wildlife trade.

Among the various proposals are those put forward by Swaziland to be granted permission to trade in rhino horn, and by Namibia and Zimbabwe to be allowed to trade in ivory.

Despite it being unlikely that they will succeed, the proposals highlight the disregard that those countries have for the rest of the continent.

‘African wildlife and culture under severe threat’ 

African culture is closely attuned to wildlife.  Look no further than the ceremonial attire and paraphernalia of African royalty, or the stories told from time immemorial about wild animals that have helped, harmed and heralded the human condition.

Africa’s wildlife (like its culture) is under severe threat of extinction owing to a variety of factors namely: climate change, population expansion, degradation and destruction of habitats and, of course, illegal wildlife trade.  Stepping up to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals it therefore behooves African leaders to safeguard the resource that its culture, its environmental health and its economies are dependent on. Without them what are our prospects?

‘Large portion of illegally acquired wildlife sold on legal market’

In the first ever World Wildlife Report published by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in June 2016 the organization says: “It appears a large share of the illegally acquired wildlife is ultimately sold in a legal market.  By introducing illegal products into licit markets, traffickers have access to a much broader pool of potential buyers.”

Furthermore, The National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper in June 2016 entitled:  “Does Legalization Reduce Black Market Activity?  Evidence from a Global Ivory Experiment and Elephant Poaching Data.”

The conclusions of the research are clear.

“We find that a singular legal ivory sale corresponds with an abrupt, significant, permanent, robust, and geographically widespread increase in the production of illegal ivory through elephant poaching, with a corresponding 2009 increase in seizure of raw ivory contraband leaving African countries.  The sudden 2008 increase in poaching does not correspond with any abrupt and systemic change in China’s or Japan’s affluence of influence in elephant range states, as measured by numerous covariates.”

‘Using trade to conserve wild species is a really complicated’

The report states, “findings demonstrate that partial legalization of a banned good can increase illegal production of the good because the existence of white markets may influence the nature of black markets.  Our findings are likely to extend to markets structurally similar to ivory markets, such as those for products from other slow-growing, slow-breeding, or low-population density species like rhinoceroses and tigers.” (©Solomon Hsiang and Nitin Sekar).

George Wittemyer, a Colorado State University associate professor of fish, wildlife and conservation biology said in an interview with Princeton University,  “Using trade to conserve wild species is a really complicated social issue and it’s hard to predict if it will be successful or not. The fact that you’re dealing with the persistence of a species means that if you make a mistake, and your assumptions are wrong, the cost can be extinction or large-scale extirpation. That to me is really important to consider and a paramount concern.”

So why would three African countries wish to open the door to the potential devastation of their, and the rest of the continent’s, natural heritage?

‘ Short-term monetary gain of trade undermine sustainable eco-tourism’

Money is the obvious answer.  But this short term gain risks eroding what the continent stands for culturally as well as undermining sustainable revenue yields such as eco-tourism.  Wildlife loss negatively impacts ecosystems, which together with the effects of climate change (described as severe for Africa by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) will reach catastrophic proportions on the continent.  In short, wildlife loss, like war and crime, undermines African development agendas.

If you’re wondering where South Africa comes into all this (apart from being the host of this all-important conference) there is the topic of lion body part trade which directly correlates to the proposals of Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe at CoP17.

Hsiang and Sekar state,  “Our findings are likely to extend to markets structurally similar to ivory markets, such as those for products from other slow-growing, slow-breeding, or low-population density species like rhinoceroses and tigers.”

Bearing in mind that lion parts are now commonly substituted for tiger parts owing to the latter’s scarcity, we can deduce that lion parts pose a major threat to wild lions of which there are an estimated 20,000 left in Africa.   In fact, at a recent meeting of African lion Range States in Entebbe, Uganda, the lion bone trade was indeed identified as a major threat to wild lions.

‘African lion in dire straits’

Add to this the proposal at CoP17 by several African countries to list all African populations of Panthera leo on Appendix I and that several countries, including the US, have formally recognised the dire straits the species is in, the extra protection this would give the species would seem a shoe-in.  However, there are vested interests.

In South Africa captive-bred lions are big business. Hunting trophies and other body parts, such as bones are exported quite legally.

When legal trade has been so clearly identified as a mask for the illegal trade, and is responsible for fueling the demand, South Africa must also look inward.  By encouraging the lion body part trade we too are complicit in selling our Brother Africans down the river.

There is a much touted African proverb that goes like this:  If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.  Time we start walking our talk.

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