Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Elephants and CITES, stumble or small step?

ISBN 1-904440-38-X
In his 2004 book What I Tell You Three Times is True Ian Parker had a whole chapter titled CITES – THE UNWORKABLE TREATY. The acronym CITES stands for The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. It was first signed in 1973 by representatives of 51 nations and by 1979 there were 527 listed species. In 2004 Ian wrote “Now, after an orgy of silliness, over 50,000 plant and animal species are on CITES lists, each having to be recognized by its scientific name...” By 2013 178 nations had signed on. The is one problem, as Ian wrote. Nobody seems to have calculated the financial cost of this unwieldy bureaucracy. 

Ian had been a game warden in the very early days of the Kenya Game Department and wrote several books about the country’s wildlife. He was particularly knowledgeable about elephants and wrote two books about them and their tusks, so coveted by humans through the ages. The first, in 1983, was Ivory Crisis, co-authored with the wonderful photographer Mohamed Amin. Twenty-one years later came “Three Times”, with its subtitle Conservation, Ivory, History and Politics. That just about covers anything one can think of to do with Ivory.

It is not as if Ian was an outside observer of CITES. He was commissioned to study the ivory trade in 1979 and wrote a detailed report about his findings. He had attended CITES meetings in 1981 and 1983 as a representative of legitimate ivory traders. He came away from those meetings gravely disillusioned and wrote of the 1983 gathering that “the only thing of use to come out of the conference was the green plastic briefcase with the CITES logo (the copyright for which was paid for by the ivory traders).”

There is a newish wrinkle to the elephant story. The trading of ivory has become big business. If the many recent posts on the subject are right ivory (along with a wide range of other wildlife products) has joined the ranks of drugs, weapons, and human trafficking as a “matter of interest” to organized crime.

As any who follow the elephant and ivory story are well aware the recent CITES meeting in Bangkok produced a less than firm result on the ivory trade and matters concerning elephant conservation. If there we any positives they were about the testing of ivory for DNA, which can give an accurate picture of its source.

There are several articles and blogs in major outlets such as Nature, The Scientific American, The online Guardian, The New York Times and social media sites such as Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter.
This one, from a TV station out of New York called New Tang Dynasty (NTD) headlined China’s Demand for Ivory Fueling Elephant Poaching was particularly interesting because it claims many Chinese people believe that ivory falls out and can be collected, a bit like deer antler.  NTD with correspondents in over 70 cities world-wide has a mission to bring truthful and uncensored information into and out of China; to restore and promote traditional Chinese culture; and to facilitate mutual understanding between the East and West.” 

Reporter, film maker and activist Bryan Christy posted a remarkable letter, dated March 7th 2013 and signed by Robert Hepworth, the former chair of the CITES standing committee on elephants and ivory trade. It was sent to every delegate at the Bangkok meeting and opened with “I write to you to express my deep concern about the crisis facing elephants and the discussions and negotiations in Bangkok.” He goes on to urge them to “implement an urgent, indefinite and comprehensive ban on ivory trade including domestic markets.”

So, was a ban forthcoming? The simple answer is No. As one on-line forum  put it in an article titled CITES: Rhetoric and tiptoeing around elephant poaching. “The actual outcome was far short of what was expected and, indeed, what was needed to secure the fate of elephants.”

In what was clearly a cop-out, or some sort of milk-sop compromise the delegates warned eight countries to watch their step. Damian Carrington of the Guardian wrote “Stop Ivory Poaching or Face Sanctions, nations warned at CITES. These are countries where ivory grows: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda; countries through which ivory is smuggled: Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines; and destination countries: Thailand and China. The threat of sanctions are more or less a political “stand in the corner you naughty child” response from the bad old days of primary school.

With its huge carving industry, including government-sponsored factories, China is not like to do more than pay lip service to any such “warning.” As they flex their mighty economic muscles in so many fields I cannot see them taking any meaningful notice of the CITES position. Thailand’s Prime Minister made a statement that at first appeared to support the ban, but Bryan Christy tweeted the following that tells a different story: Thai PM did NOT commit to end ALL ivory trade according to this #cites doc. Only ILLEGAL trade

It may be that the CITES members were scared off by terrifyingly powerful crime syndicates, cow-towing to the might of the Chinese or perhaps they were simply re-enforcing Parker’s assertion about an unworkable treaty.

There are some bright spots in this sorry tale, but they have not yet become incandescent. People in Kenya have begun to realize that without elephants their tourist industry will take a hammering. There have been street rallies in Nairobi and at least one member of the public has garnered news headlines with his long walks.

Perhaps the brightest of all appears in a brief but inspiring segment of the National Geographic film Battle for the Elephants. Richard Bonham, who owns a safari lodge in the Chyulu hills, right next to Amboseli National Park founded the Big LifeFoundation. It was not Bonham’s first venture into conservation. He has been closely involved with lion conservation for some years. From all appearances he used the successful model of employing local Masai people to protect the lions into a similar program for elephants. In the movie he describes how 280 rangers are employed and gives statistics on the carnage, comparing the loss of 16 elephants in 18 months under his scheme with the 30 per day in Tanzania.

On the other hand a smooth and urbane minister in the Tanzanian government denied any knowledge of illegal ivory sales and stated it would be “impossible.” He was being interviewed by Aidan Hartley for that same National Geographic film. He expressed shock and was “really surprised” when Hartley came back and showed him how easy it had been to find illegal vendors and set up a purchase.  

It will take street activists, like those walkers in Nairobi, to get action at the supply end. At the consumer end one can only hope that stars like Yao Ming and young people like CeliaHo, about whom I have written before, will be heard.  Celia has to juggle school studies (she is 14) but is active on Facebook. I have other ivory-related blogs as well. 

Both Aidan Hartley and Bryan Christy tried to give a positive spin on their grim story and Hartley ended with this statement.

We shouldn’t give up hope, but it is a race against time. Because at the moment we’re losing elephant populations at such a fast rate that by the time the Chinese middle classes wake up, by the time that they’ve stopped buying all this stuff, it’ll be too late.

Christy hopes to return to China in twenty years and shake hands with the people he met during his undercover assignment.

With organized crime in the game I am not optimistic.


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