Rhino, elephant, lion fates to be decided at Cites

Cites – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – has been around for four decades. In that time it has governed the trade of animal species, from devil rays in the ocean to rosewood trees on land.

It decides if a species is endangered, or if countries can trade it. The quantities of that trade are also set by the body. Member states can ignore these classifications, but then they get frozen out of all international trade in plants and animals. This recently happened to Rwanda, with the country being given a month to improve its legislation in order to better protect species.

The 2016 meeting of Cites is being held in Johannesburg, with events kicking off this past Saturday. Along with discussions around the more than 500 species being debated, the meeting has created deep divisions between African states on how they should conserve their animals.

Southern African states tend to favour a form of trade, but disagree with each other on the best way to do this. Swaziland is asking for a form of legalised trade so that it can sell its stockpile of rhino horn, saying that it cannot afford the cost of conserving the species. Namibia and Zimbabwe have voiced similar proposals.

    Need to know:

  • Cites is the world body tasked with deciding which species can be traded.
  • It meets every three years, with this meeting lasting until October 5.
  • Two-thirds of the 181 member states must agree for the listing of a species to get changed.
  • Proposals on trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn look set to cause the most controversy.

South Africa was moving towards asking for a legalised trade, but Cabinet decided earlier this year that the country was not yet ready for such a move.


The country has lost a thousand rhino to poachers in each of the last two years and holds some 80% of the world’s white rhino population. Its neighbours have much smaller populations of rhino but together these are the last bastions of the species in the wild.

The South African environment department has said it will not oppose moves by its neighbours to ask for such a trade.

The same holds true for the trade in ivory. Traffic – the Cites’ body that monitors trade in species – says that 140 000 of Africa’s elephants were killed between 2007 and 2014. That’s around a third of the continent’s freely-roaming pachyderms.

A coalition of 29 African states is calling for much tighter restrictions on the trade of ivory. At the moment most elephant populations in southern Africa are classified as Appendix II, which means they can be used for things such as trophy hunting.

Botswana – which has the world’s largest elephant population with a herd of 50 000 – and its neighbours use these funds to help conserve the animals. It is a form of management that South Africa’s environment department calls sustainable utilisation of natural resources. That basically means that animals help pay for the management and survival of their own species through things such as trophy hunting.

Countries using that principle for conservation want the Appendix II status of their elephants to be maintained. But the coalition of 29 countries opposed to this want all elephants to be classified as Appendix I.

They cite the failure of a once-off sale in ivory which was allowed by Cites in 2008. This came about after the 2007 Cites meeting was stuck with the same sort of deadlock looming in this conference – with two opposing views on conservation refusing to budge.

South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe were all able to sell their ivory stockpile to buyers in China and Japan. South Africa sold 47-tonnes of ivory for $157 a tonne.

But research since then points to that sale having helped drive the current explosion in poaching. A recent study from the University of California, Berkeley, found that the sale led to a 66% increase in illegally traded ivory. It concluded that the sale had led to an “abrupt, significant, permanent, robust and geographically widespread increase” in poaching.

With support needed from two-thirds of member states, the proposals for trade being put forward by Southern African countries will probably be voted down.

That leaves another 498 species to discuss. In opening Cites, President Jacob Zuma talked about the success that South Africa has had in conserving animals; such as growing Cape Mountain Zebra populations from 500 to 5 000. This means that there are species that can be taken off the endangered list – but many that will need to have their status updated.

This includes pangolins, the most trafficked mammals on earth. The solitary nocturnal animals are seen as a delicacy, and their scales are used in traditional medicine and as fashion accessories. It is estimated that a million have been caught and sold to markets in the East in the last decade. The impact of that demand is driving a proposal to ban all trade in the vulnerable animal.

The reclassification also includes lions, which are being pushed towards endangered status by hunting for their bones. South Africa has been heavily criticised for a lively trade in their bones, with entire skeletons finding their way to markets in the east.

Each of these considerations will be discussed at sessions that run until October 5.

Cites estimates that the illegal trade in wildlife alone is worth R270-billion a year. These discussions will be part of a global attempt to stem that trade.

The Mail & Guardian will be covering developments. Follow @mg_reporter for more.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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