Politics of saving species: South Africa gets its way at Cites


The vote to maintain the status quo for elephants in Southern Africa started three hours late because of technical difficulties. The voting system – giving the option of yes, no or abstain – wasn’t picking up some of the 182 countries present. With a close vote expected, everyone’s choice was critical.

These votes, at the 17th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (Cites), determine the future of the species.

Countries come to the meetings with proposals for the status of species to be changed to reflect how they are doing. More protection comes with less trade. Two-thirds of voting states have to support a proposal for it to pass.

In the case of elephants, a group of 29 African countries proposed that the status of elephant in Southern Africa be upgraded and brought in line with those further north. The proposed Appendix I rating would stop any future once-off sales in ivory, such as the sale that happened in 2008. Outside of that sale, trade has been banned since 1977. The countries said it was important that the world unite behind a single listing as a warning to poachers.

With loud clapping in the cavernous Sandton meeting hall every time a proponent spoke, the motion came with a great deal of support from environmental groups and countries. Four elephants are killed in Africa every hour, 140 000 between 2007 and 2014. Botswana’s wildlife minister, Tshekedi Khama, said: “No population should be considered secure. Put simply, a threat to elephants anywhere is a threat to elephants everywhere.” But most of the killing has been happening outside the Southern African Development Community, and populations in the region are growing.

The wave of optimism didn’t count on the political reality of a Cites meeting. Official discussions happen in two large committee rooms, with smaller rooms – packed to the point of standing – used for lobby groups to put forward their spin on the science.

But the real discussions happen in ad-hoc rooms in the Sandton Convention Centre, or at expensive restaurants outside the venue. Here, countries play the long game – supporting moves now in the hope of support for their own proposals – or fall in line with alliances.

The reality of animals living and dying is secondary.

This is a game South Africa is really good at. Its environment and international relations departments have a great deal of experience in exhaustive climate negotiations and other platforms where haggling is the name of the game.

After 30 seconds of voting, the results of the elephant vote popped up on three giant screens at the front of committee room 1. These normally carry pertinent messages about wi-fi access.

But on this occasion they showed three columns, the green “yes” one supporting the change in elephant status slightly higher than the red “no” column. Not high enough to get the two-thirds majority needed for a change. Success for South Africa and maintenance of the status quo.

This vote was swiftly followed by another contentious issue, with Swaziland asking for permission to sell rhino horn. It said: “Some animals must die for others to live … Conservation without finance is just conversation.” South Africa supported the proposal, but did not throw any political capital behind it: that is being reserved for any possible future proposals. Swaziland’s proposal died.

Where capital was used, South Africa succeeded. A proposal to ban all trade in lion, from the heads that are hung as trophies to the bones exported to the Asian medical industry, was weakened to make concessions for the country.

With only 20 000 lions left in the wild, countries wanted a blanket ban to stop the species’ decline.

But countries such as Zimbabwe objected, with its delegation saying: “The coexistence of people and lions can only be protected by putting value on lions.”

If people don’t benefit from lion, they won’t conserve them. It is a principle of sustainable use that unites most countries in Southern Africa at events such as Cites.

A compromise was reached, without the fate of lion going to a vote.

South Africa can sell derivatives from captive lion, but a ban on trade from wild lion remains.

These battles were the hardest fought because of the symbolism attached to the animals.

That tends to be the case when well-funded environmental and hunting organisations go into action.

Where few care about a species, its fate was quickly decided on the science that backs Cites. This was the case with the Cape mountain zebra. South Africa had expanded its population from 500 to 5 000 and now wanted legalised trade so it could continue that conservation work. Nobody objected.

In this Cites, South Africa came out with most of what it wanted. But that just means the lobbyists will be working hard to overturn these decisions at the next Cites in three years’ time.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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