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.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Two Sides to the Rhino Horn Trade

There are two sides to every question, right? Of course it is an old cliché, but one would think that when it comes to rhino horn trade the answer would be an emphatic NO WAY!

Well, as far as some members of the South African Game Farmers Association are concerned there are indeed two sides.

As we wait for the CITES decision on the ivory trade the situation with rhino poaching has continued to deteriorate.

Here is a summary of some facts as outlined by noted rhino expert Dr. Pete Morkel about recent developments in South Africa.

"South Africa has lost another 24 rhino since last week," the CEO of SA National Parks (SANParks) David Mabunda said in a statement.
"The Kruger National Park remains the hardest hit, with 15 rhino being poached for their horn since 20 February 2013."
According to the latest statistics by SANParks the Kruger National Park has had 107 poaching since the beginning of the year. Across South Africa 146 have been poached so far this year, which brought the total to 1,595 over the past four years. Each year the number of poached animals rises. And at over two animals per day in 2013 the trend is likely to continue. 
To those of us outside South Africa this horror story can be simply stopped, or at least curtailed by simple strokes of the several pens. If CITES would ban all forms of rhino horn trade and then help importing countries to enforce the ban, the trade would dwindle. The major importers are in Asia, with Vietnam leading the way, but Korea and China are well in the mix.
Vietnam and South Africa have signed an MOU, but as has been pointed out, MOUs are probably not even worth the paper they are written on if the parties have no intention of honouring them.
I have written before about the snake oil sales pitch in Vietnam and the claim that the stuff (merely keratin) is a cure for cancer. A ridiculous new claim has arisen. Derek Mead has written that rhino horn is now being used as party drug to cure hangovers.
Mead has picked up on a Global Post article of August 2012  headlined Forget cocaine: Rhino horn is the new drug of status
Picture of a woman grinding rhino horn in a specially designed bowl was on Mead's post, but no photographer is named.
Erin Conway-Smith, the author of that article states that “Tom Milliken, a rhino expert with TRAFFIC who has worked extensively in Asia and Africa, said that in Vietnam, offering your friends rhino horn at a party has become a fashionable way to show wealth and status.”
She goes on: “The TRAFFIC report describes the disturbing phenomenon of “rhino horn touts” stalking the corridors at hospitals, seeking out desperate patients with cancer.”

Sounds to me like a new form of the much-despised ambulance-chasing lawyer.

One Vietnamese news website described rhino horn wine as “the alcoholic drink of millionaires.”
Mead has another thought-provoking post on the Motherboard site. In this one he is relating his own direct experience when he logged into an underground message board in “search of rhinoceros horn.” He was soon offered some. He reported that some vendors have even used Facebook to make sales! The price of horn is now in the $90,000 per kg range.

This black rhino bull was found wandering Zimbabwe's Savé Valley Conservancy after poachers shot it several times and hacked off both its horns. Veterinarians euthanized the animal because its shattered shoulder could no longer support its weight.  In the past six years poachers have killed more than a thousand African rhinos for their treasured horns. Photograph by Brent Stirton / National Geographic

It would seem that this is a simple issue. Stop the slaughter, stop the trade. Amazingly there is another side to this story, and it has gone under the radar.

Despite the carnage, which has escalated since the cancer cure claim emerged in Vietnam, the numbers of white rhino are on the increase. This is because the South African game farming industry has done a good job of caring for them and that they have bred successfully.

White rhino in Meru National Park, Kenya.
A hundred years ago there were fewer than twenty southern white rhino left anywhere. Their recovery from the brink is generally attributed to two men. One was Frederick Vaughan-Kirby, a hunter turned park ranger. The other was Ian Player, brother of the golfer Gary, who was involved in early translocation efforts that have led to the species being found in 17 different countries and many other areas of Africa.  There are several thousand world-wide, but most of them are in South Africa.

Some members of the South African Game Farmers Association see the possible legal sale of rhino horn as a real opportunity for income, especially at today’s prices. They stress legal.

Rhino immobilization is not difficult. Since the days when I immobilized about 150 of them for translocation the techniques and drug regimes have improved. In the hands of experienced veterinarians losses are minimal. It really would be no problem to dehorn rhinos every two or three years (rhino horn grows continuously, just like fingernails) and take the harvested product into the market.

We should accept (albeit heartily dislike) the fact that rhino horn is now considered a commodity in the orient, and that major organized crime syndicates are involved in the trade. If legal trade were permitted it might take the pressure off the free-ranging animals in parks.

However, Dr. Morkel thinks that “legal sale would be a fiasco.”  

There is no doubt that wealthy rhino owners would become even wealthier if this happens, but Dr. Morkel thinks this may be a pipe-dream for the rest. As he put it to me the wealthy ones "will probably have the resources to protect their rhino but as for the rhino in the smaller SA private reserves, SA government parks/reserves and other African and Asian range states I have serious doubts whether legal trade will do them any favours. Legal trade can only work if there is tight control and that just does not exist in the range states or consumer countries. There is also this myth that all this money will come flowing straight back into rhino security. They are dreaming. It did not happen with the money from the legal sale of ivory so why should it be any different with rhino horn?"
On the other hand here is a model for the legalization thinking. Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 in the USA. It failed.

As I said, two sides.