By Steven Galster, Director of Freeland

In order to slow Earth’s current and fastest rate of species loss ever, Freeland calls on the 183 member states of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), currently meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, to pass all proposals that maximize protection of endangered species as a matter of urgency and common sense. 

This would include support for proposals to increase protection for elephants, tigers, hornbills, rosewood, and other species already on the endangered list, but for which adequate protection measures are still not being implemented.  And it would include opposition to proposals to open global trade in horns from rhinos, elephant tusks, and parts of other species whose global populations are in decline.

As with each CITES meeting, pro-trade and anti-trade factions have emerged in Johannesburg.  I have been attending CITES meetings since 1992, and the arguments being used by both sides are largely the same as ever.  Some participants, including trade lobbyists, treat CITES as a global commodities market.  There are even economists walking around plugging new algorithms that show how a controlled legal trade in rhino horn will increase rhino numbers.  NGOs are holding side meetings to lobby for stricter controls. 

Pro-trade elements point to the fact that CITES is a trade convention, not a protection organization, and that good science –not emotion-- should dictate whether one species or sub-species should be allocated a commercial trade quota or not.  They add that one country should not be penalized for another country’s performance, and therefore a ban on trade in one country where populations of a particular species are low should not apply to another country where numbers are stable. 

The anti-trade side appeals for precaution, claiming that a legal trade in commercially valuable species could sound their death knell because criminal traffickers know no boundaries and will use legal channels to launder poached wildlife.  I am on this side of precaution.

Elephants are a great example of the debate and the real dangers. 

In the recent past, CITES allowed for some countries with stable elephant populations to sell their stocks of tusks in order to secure money for their government and to sustain their conservation efforts.  Those limited sales quotas sent ivory prices up, leading wholesale (including underground) buyers to go on a buying binge, which increased poaching to a rate of one elephant killed per 15 minutes in Africa today.  The limited legal trade did not work because enforcement along the supply chains was still not stronger than organized crime, which exploited and strengthened corruption in order to circumvent CITES and kill elephants. 

There are other examples as well.

Tigers have been on the endangered list since CITES started 4 decades ago.  Some countries attempted to simultaneously conserve and sell tigers by creating tiger farms.  The theory: the demand for tiger body parts is strong, tigers breed like cats, so why not breed them, feed the demand, and thereby reduce pressure on wild tigers.  China, Thailand, and later Vietnam and Laos all started tiger farms.  Poaching of wild tigers went up, not down.  While some pro-trade experts say there is no correlation between the increase in commercial breeding and poaching, we have direct evidence of the correlation.  Imprisoned traffickers have told Freeland how they deliberately tried to compete and undermine tiger farm sales by going out and buying more and cheaper tigers from the wild.  The experiment in legal trade of this endangered species was disastrous.

But why give up?  The pro-trade forces decided to try it with bears. 

Bear farms propped up in largely the same countries to produce a supply of bear gallbladders for the traditional pharmaceutical market.  Once again, this experiment stimulated a larger market.  Traffickers in turn found multiple sources for supply, including the farms and the forests.  Poaching of bears in places like Russia and even parts of North America went up.

In 2004 CITES passed a resolution allowing for sport hunting of rhinos, which meant hunters could take the horn home and put it on their wall.  Organized crime quickly found a way to sponsor numerous hunts to get the horn and sell on the black market.  Buyers saw a future in horn and poaching went up.

Pro-trade forces point to crocodile farming as their big success.

However, while crocodile farming has actually led to an increase in wild populations in a few countries, it directly led to poaching and the near extermination of crocs in most range states.  Bad example to hold up as a success.

It is time for CITES members –at least the majority of them—to realize and admit that international commercial trade in endangered species does not work in almost any case, and should therefore be abandoned as an incredibly dangerous practice.  We should not treat global biodiversity as a stock and commodities market to be exploited and manipulated for personal commercial gain.  These are stocks that do not recover if we get the algorithm wrong.

A number of large organizations, including CITES, have pointed out that corruption and lack of enforcement are the real issues that CITES must focus on.  Agreed! Evidence and history point clearly to the fact that any legal trade in endangered species –however limited or expansive—facilitates corruption, which in turn leads to more poaching and trafficking.

It is time for CITES to stop flirting with disaster.