CITES in Johannesburg – experiencing a South African first

It isn’t every year that a huge international wildlife convention comes to your doorstep, so when I heard that the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP) was going to be at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, I was thrilled. It presented a unique opportunity to partake in and experience the process at very low expense and to raise awareness around issues that we face in South Africa. I was privileged enough to attend the previous CITES CoP in Bangkok, so I had already had an opportunity to understand the workings of the big hairy beast that is CITES and as such had managed to get over the ‘deer in the headlights’ feeling that I felt when I walked into the Bangkok CoP!

What struck me about the CoP was the amount of technical skill required to get over 180 countries in the world in a room, with live translations into three languages and the ability to run an organised voting and speaking system, and the formality of the proceedings, which reflected the gravity of the decisions that were being made.

The big discussions this year were around Elephants. For me, the key successes were:
1. The prohibiting of trade in wild African Lion bones and parts. While some were disappointed that lions did not get uplisted to Appendix I, remaining on Appendix II with this annotation offers a lot more protection to wild lions.
2. The uplisting of African Grey Parrots and all eight species of pangolins to Appendix 1 which will allow for tighter regulation of their trade. African Greys are traded as pets and while many are captive bred, there is evidence of significant removals from the wild as wild animals are cheaper than tame captive animals. This has led to significant declines in wild populations. Pangolins are probably the most trafficked animal in the world for their scales for traditional practices and their meat as a delicacy.
3. The acknowledgment that breeding tigers in captivity for their parts has not contributed to conservation and is to be discouraged and where possible stopped. Tiger bones are used in Chinese Traditional Medicine in Tiger Bone Wine as a general wellness tonic and captive breeding has been used in an attempt to supply this demand.
4. Tighter restrictions around trade linked to various social media platforms like Instagram where Cheetah cubs and other wildlife are often advertised. This was catalysed by our Cheetah trade recommendations from the previous CoP. Cheetahs are sought after as exotic pets especially in the Middle East, where they are seen as status symbols too. Many cubs are stolen from the wild in East Africa and smuggled in bad conditions that many do not survive.

My biggest disappointment was the annotation to the African Lion’s Appendix II listing that allows for the trade in bones and parts from South Africa’s captive bred lions. Granted, lion bones have been traded from South Africa’s captive bred animals for a few years already and this decision does put a few more checks and balances in place to monitor this trade, but it seems crazy to be promoting this when the breeding of tigers for their bones had been dissuaded a few days earlier. While some feel that supplying the demand will remove pressure from wild populations, there is no proof that this will happen. We have seen captive lions being poisoned for their parts over the past few months, while we do not know if this is local or international trade, it should be raising flags. Additionally, poached lions will always be free and often by supplying a product, the demand increases. It is going to be very interesting to see where this takes us in terms of lion conservation and captive breeding in the next three years.
There is often confusion around what CITES does and what the trade controls mean. CITES regulates international trade only, and has no control over in-country issues like local trade. An Appendix I listing also does not ban trade outright, but rather regulates it more strictly. As a convention only, it is only as strong as a country’s desire to enforce the regulations and implement the convention rules.

The EWT was involved in two primary roles at the CoP. Firstly, from a technical or scientific perspective, we provided comments on the proposals submitted by member states, and contributed to various side-events on topics up for decision-making at the CoP. Workshop topics presented by the EWT included ‘Vultures in Africa’, ‘Conservation Science’, ‘Cycads in Trade’, ‘Careers in Conservation’, ‘Cheetah Captive Trade in South Africa’ and ‘Carnivores and Transboundary Protected Areas’. These workshops and side events provide opportunities for delegates to get information about issues, provide supporting information around motions and start discussions around emerging issues. They also provide a platform for sharing information with the press and public. This CoP had the most side events ever and they were all very well attended. One of the most valuable aspects was the networking opportunities that were provided over snacks and wine. I got to meet the heads of several delegations at these events, as well as international donors and reputed scientists.
Secondly, the EWT was part of the Flauna Consortium that was contracted by the Department of Environmental Affairs to manage their communications programme around the event, as well as develop the legacy/sustainability projects associated with CITES. Our role was specialist advisor and Claire Patterson-Abrolat, EWT Special Projects Manager, with relevant input from other EWT staff, fed through technical information to the team which consisted of various communications experts such as social media, digital, creative, advertising and so on.
Another key opportunity from the CoP was having colleagues from international organisations in the country. In many cases I collaborate with people and organisations but seldom get to see them. I used this opportunity to take them on field trips during CoP down time to show them lion captive breeding first hand and also to showcase our reintroduction projects for Cheetahs and African Wild Dogs.

On the whole, there was a good feeling around the CoP and it was thought to be very successful. For many of us who work on the ground with these trade issues, we feel that the wheels turn very slowly. However, the convention remains a very important tool in our conservation tool box and it does make big differences in the international wildlife trade arena.

Dr. Kelly Marnewick, Carnivore Conservation Programme Manager

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