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Cites: Everyone wants to stop species being wiped out, but don’t agree on the solution

“A thousand game rangers have died protecting rhino and elephant in Africa – six in Swaziland.” Ted Reilly slowed down after this statement, struggling to keep reading his speech as he cried.

Committee room 1 at the 17th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) was silent. “They weren’t paid enough and they died.”

Reilly has been raising rhino in the Swazi kingdom for five decades but death rates now exceed birth rates. At 78, he said the species might be wiped out while he is still alive. At Cites, he tabled a proposal to allow the small kingdom to sell off rhino horn. This would fund conservation.

He said: “Under the Cites ban [rhino horn trade has been banned for four decades], dead rhino are more valuable than live rhino.”

Rhino horn is now one of the most valuable commodities on Earth. A thousand were killed in neighbouring South Africa last year, and the year before.

Swaziland’s proposal was heavily defeated. As much as any other moment at Cites, it illustrated the completely different ways in which groups think species must be saved. Swaziland falls in line with most of its southern neighbours, which want to sell the species they are keeping alive so that they can afford conservation.

They point to the failure of bans on trade in rhino horn and elephant tusks. When a ban was imposed on rhino horn trade in 1977, there were 70 000 black rhino in the wild. There are now 5 000. Only 11 countries are left with rhino. Between 2007 and 2014, elephant numbers in Africa decreased by 30%.

  • About 140 000 elephant killed between 2007 and 2014.
  • Rhino wiped out in 22 of the 33 countries where they used to roam.
  • Ban in trade saved some species, but failed elephant and rhino.
  • Cites has to pick one solution: allow or ban the trade, in flora and fauna, species by species.

Countries in Southern Africa advocate a system of sustainable use, in which animals are traded and hunted to raise funds for more conservation. In developing states, conservation competes with issues such as water for a small budget.

But their northern neighbours have borne the brunt of poaching. Countries such as Kenya say all trade in endangered species – be it rhino or lion or elephant – has to be banned. That ban will allow enforcement agencies to seize any shipments of the species and close down markets. Côte d’Ivoire said: “A ban would end all future sales of ivory and give elephant a chance to recover.”

At Cites, this meant two weeks of acrimonious comments passed across the African divide. Most of these came in prefabricated meeting rooms. Economists, hunters and environmentalists would often present the same facts, but read contradictory meaning into them. One senior economist said of the pro-elephant trade position that “it is very hard to see the logic in their argument”. Zambia’s environment minister asked the not-so-rhetorical question: “Why do people sit back and punch holes in the work of others?”

Cites works around polarised positions by requiring any change in the status of an animal to be carried by two-thirds of voting members. In Sandton, those votes showed little consistency. At one point, South Africa was given permission to trade in the Cape mountain zebra so that it could pay to conserve the species. But four days later, Swaziland’s proposal to do the same thing, albeit in white rhino, was shot down.

Cites was riddled with similar inconsistencies. But the one constant was that nobody could give a working solution for saving a species if someone else wants it dead. The debates will continue to the next meeting in three years, and animals will be wanted – dead or alive.

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

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