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SADC moves to start legal wildlife trade outside CITES

From the soil: SADC countries are fighting for the right to set their own conservation agendas
JOHANNESBURG: Last week a number of SADC countries made formal declarations refusing to accept anymore of what they say is CITES’ ‘unfair, harmful and prohibitive’ trade rules regarding wildlife and wildlife products.

The states dismissed the CITES voting process and reinforced their position that the UN agency’s trading rules are “tainted, rigged and not free and fair.”

After the 18th CITES conference voted to block the SADC countries from trading in specific animals in August, some of them recently officially filed reservations with CITES to ignore the vote, a dramatic action the CITES treaty permits. The SADC states have declared that they would not abide by the CITES restrictions that are detrimental to conservation and development in their countries.

Well-placed sources have confirmed that seven SADC countries —particularly elephant over-populated and wildlife-rich Botswana, eSwatini (Swaziland), Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe — have sent official reservations to the Swiss government. They are collectively objecting to CITES’ change in details concerning live elephant trade, live rhino trade, ivory and rhino horn trade bans and the listing of the unthreatened giraffe population on CITES Appendix II.

Although neither confirming nor denying that it too is participating in the SADC rejection of CITES, recent statements made by government representatives of Mozambique suggest that it also submitted the necessary reservation documents. Countries that formally issue CITES reservations to specific restrictions can then only trade with countries that have also registered a reservation or are non-members of CITES.

As a result, the SADC countries might have to wait before trading actually starts. The next opportunity for member countries to object to any CITES decision will be at the 19th gathering of signatories in 2022, after the CITES 19th meeting in Costa Rica. For reasons that are yet to be clearly explained, the SADC countries submitted their reservation documents quietly and without informing their citizens of the important conservation and development decisions taken. The normal practice is for countries to register their objections with the Swiss government, as the depository of the CITES treaty. Under SADC rules, SADC countries are also required to inform its Secretariat that they have submitted Reservations to CITES via the Swiss Government. eSwatini is the only country to have done so thus far.

Meanwhile, some NGO representatives are wondering why SADC countries have hidden the historic reservation process from their citizens.  “I think what troubles me most is that the governments seem to be afraid to reveal to their publics what they have done,” said Los Angeles-based managing director of the Ivory Education Institute, Godfrey Harris.

“That shows weakness. It also shows fear. Of whom? Of What? Are they afraid that the anti-trade NGOs will retaliate by cutting off whatever support funds they now provide to various agencies and members of the government?

“The US Government told the world, loudly and proudly, that it was opting out of the Paris Climate Agreement, because it would be harmful to the U.S. economy, much to the consternation and negative reaction of the rest of the world.

“Why are SADC countries reluctant to do the same?”

But, Harris noted “it was impressive” that the Tanzanian Government (current Chair of SADC) reportedly flew a delegation to Switzerland to submit its reservation documents because Tanzania wanted to be sure that they would not be rejected for procedural reasons.

Harris added that he hoped that the SADC countries’ decision “is not going to turn out to be an empty gesture - an act of bravado with no teeth and no bite because their wildlife products can’t yet be sold in world markets.”

 Asked via e-mail to provide the names of SADC countries that had gone on CITES reservations, the CITES Programme and Communications Officer, Yuan Liu said last week that they had not received the list.

 “In fact we have not been officially notified by the Depository Government about this. So I can’t confirm anything,” said Liu who could also not provide the list of the SADC countries when asked to do so this week, seven days later.

“In its 45-year history, CITES has done nothing positive for Africa, its people or its wildlife,” said Ron Thomson, CEO of South Africa-based pro-sustainable use NGO, True Green Alliance.

“The corrupt Western animal rightist NGOs are using CITES to attack and to disallow Africa’s legal and honest ‘sustainable-use-of-wildlife’ aspirations.  “No respectable state wants to be part of this [organisation], the world’s biggest organised crime organisation.” 

Thomson added: “By carrying out this action these SADC countries made a bold statement to the world that they objected to the way that CITES has been corrupted by its accredited animal rightist NGOs who now control the outcomes of CITES debates. They have done this by buying ‘decision-making’ votes from those of its 183 sovereign state members who are susceptible to bribery.”

Elsewhere, a Singapore-based policy consultant and principal of AsiaCat, Kirsten Conrad, lauded the reservations’ move made by SADC countries, despite the fact that they lack a trading partner at the moment.  “It’s important not to be a doormat [resist being treated as unimportant], and to fight back within the provisions of the CITES Treaty. If that does not work, then CITES has been warned. You saw this with Japan and the International Whaling Commission in December 2018 when Japan pulled out of [the organisation] in protest over a 38-year-old ban in commercial whaling and started commercial whale hunting in July 2019.” Conrad said the countries that are pushing for trade bans “need to demonstrate what they are doing for conservation instead of dictating to Africa what [the Africans] should be doing.”

For a long time SADC countries such as Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe have considered going outside of CITES to establish a legal and independent trading body.  At the Kasane Elephant Summit held in Botswana in May 2019 they said that it was high time that SADC initiated a new ivory treaty outside CITES in consultation with any ivory-importing countries that are prepared to join them.

 “SADC States hold more than three-quarters of the elephants and provide more than 60% of their range in Africa, the time has come for them to exercise their sovereign rights and pursue a different strategy,” said one of Africa’s most experienced elephant management specialists, Zimbabwe-based Rowan Martin.

As far back as 2012, Mr Martin and his research partners found that Regional Commissions were amongst the most effective mechanisms for trade and sustainable use within CITES.

 “Apart from elephants and ivory, SADC could additionally consider setting up a Regional Trading Commission for rhinos and rhino horn,” said Martin in a document presented at the Kasane Elephant Summit. “Alternatively, given the fundamentally flawed nature of CITES, denunciation of the Treaty (as in BREXIT) might be the preferred option.”

Analysts say if southern African countries were allowed to trade in their stockpiled rhino horn and ivory tusks it would result in an economic boom. It would most importantly generate enough money for wildlife conservation, including the protection of the most poached and valuable species such as rhinos and elephants.  According to a recently leaked report produced by one of South Africa’s leading consultancy firms, trade in rhino horn, if it were made legal, could earn South Africa alone more than R1 trillion (US$68 billion).

“The United States made an economic argument for escaping the strictures of the Paris Climate Accord,” said Harris. “Why shouldn’t South Africa do the same with regard to rhino horn and ivory tusks? What are they waiting for? Who are they afraid of?”

At the June 2019 Victoria Falls African Wildlife Economy Summit, Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa appealed to the CITES Secretary General Yvonne Higuerro, to allow his country to sell its US$600 million worth of ivory. Zimbabwe is yet to publicly disclose its quantity of stockpiled rhino horn.

Botswana is known to have the biggest elephant population in the world and no doubt one of the largest ivory stocks (reportedly valued at more than US$700 million). Namibia (US$100 million worth of ivory) is experiencing the same missed opportunity, as are eSwatini, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and other countries in southern Africa. Japan is being viewed as a possible future SADC ivory and rhino horn trading partner with China having declined to trade with SADC because it reportedly wants to present a good image to its strategic Western trading partners such as the USA. But given the current tariff negotiations with the U.S., ivory and rhino horn hardly seem as important as aircraft, computer chips, soy beans, and automobiles.

*Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning environmental journalist who has written extensively on environment and development issues in Africa


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