By Judith Needham, JD, LLM, MPH

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, September 25, 2016 (ENS) – “It is a great pleasure to be here in the City of Johannesburg – the vibrant heart of South Africa.” With these words on Saturday, John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, opened this 12-day trade and wildlife meeting at the Sandton Convention Centre in downtown Joburg.


South African dancers perform at the opening ceremony, welcoming delegates to the CITES meeting, Sept. 24, 2016 (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

Opening day ceremonies included a musical tribute to the country’s heritage, speeches praising South African Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa, and praise for all the work done by the governments that are Parties to the Convention during the three years since the last CITES meeting in 2013.

Addressing the delegates, South African President Jacob Zuma exposed one highly contentious issue to be debated over the next two weeks – the role of wildlife.

“The sustainable use of … indigenous biological resources is fundamental to the development of South Africa’s economy and social transformation. In this regard, game farming, the hunting industry, eco-tourism and bio-prospecting play a significant role. The hunting sector in South Africa generates well over one billion rand a year (US$7.5 million),” said President Zuma.


South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma addresses CITES CoP17 delegates, Sept. 24, 2016 (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

Given the agenda before the 17th Conference of the Parties to CITES, CoP17, it is fitting that the meeting is being held in Africa. This gathering in a wealthy African city underscores the complex issues involved.

Proposals for many African species are circulating: Southern white rhino, Cape mountain zebra, Barbary macaque, African elephant, African grey parrot, Nile crocodiles, Pygmy chameleons, turquoise dwarf gecko, and many more.

CITES, an international treaty, regulates cross-border trade in over 35,000 species of wildlife – both plants and animals.

Just 30 governments attended the first Conference of the Parties, CoP1, in 1976. Today, 182 countries plus the European Union are registered to attend CoP17. Angola, Iraq, the European Union, Tajikistan, and Tonga are the five entities that have joined since 2013.


CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon addresses the opening session of CoP17, Sept. 24, 2016 (Photo by Kiara Worth / Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

Since then, there has been an ever-increasing level of political interest in wildlife trade issues, on tackling the surge in illegal wildlife trade, and a recognition of the importance of CITES both in its own right and in achieving broader goals and targets, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Scanlon told the delegates.

Political support has led to more funding to address wildlife trade issues. Since 2013, the Global Environment Facility, GEF, has committed US$131 million to fight illegal wildlife trade and poaching through the new Global Wildlife Programme, which also addresses conservation and sustainable livelihoods. The GEF will also “leverage significant additional funds,” said Scanlon.

“We also have many multilateral and bilateral donors, as well as several philanthropic organizations, here at CoP17 that have scaled up their investment in CITES issues,” Scanlon said. “We sincerely thank all of you and encourage you to invest even more – noting that a relatively small investment in wildlife trade issues can make an enormous difference.”


The Pangolin Coalition’s “Pangy” walks the conference hallways to draw delegates’ attention to the plight of pangolins in the wild. Costume by Sharon Kwok. (Photo © Judith Needham)

Azzedine Downes, CEO and president of International Fund for Animal Welfare and head of IFAW’s delegation, says, “Illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade has become such a huge threat to many species that international cooperation between governments, NGOs and other stakeholders is absolutely vital in tackling it.”

“Conservation must be at the heart of all decisions taken at the CoP. The stakes are high for so many species and we must make certain that sound science and the precautionary principle are deciding factors and not short term political or economic interests,” said Downes.

The pangolin, the most illegally traded mammal in the world with more than a million taken from the wild in the past decade, is a focus at CoP17. Their scales are being used in traditional Asian medicine and their meat is a highly valued delicacy. Pangolins are particularly sensitive to over-exploitation because their reproduction rate is very low.

“We could very soon see this amazing species disappear, if the unsustainable trade continues,” says Mark Hofberg, IFAW’s pangolin expert. “All eight pangolin species have to be transferred to Appendix I to ensure maximum protection from further commercial trade in their parts. It is absolutely unsustainable, unnecessary and cruel and there is no reason why it should continue.”

Costumed to represent a pangolin, “Pangy” is the creation of the Pangolin Coalition, a working group with the goal of getting the pangolin CITES proposals approved.

Coalition partners are IFAW, the Humane Society International, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, Born Free, and Freehand. The suit was made by Sharon Kwok, who has her own foundation called Aquameridian, based in Hong Kong.

Opening day rhetoric came in many forums and in several languages. Amidst the clamor, three ideas stand out:

1. CITES is fighting a war against transnational organized crime.

In 2010 CITES joined with four other organizations to form ICCWC (say ick-wik), the International consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime. The purpose was to “usher in a new era where perpetrators of serious wildlife and forest crime will face a formidable and coordinated response, rather than the present situation where the risk of detection and punishment is all too low.”

Scanlon says that in the past six years, “We have made a significant shift in the way the international community views wildlife crime. Although the world has not won this war, we have made a lot of progress.”

Countries that previously looked the other way are beginning to clamp down on consumer demand for illegal wildlife. Scanlon particularly singles out Thailand and China as examples of countries that have “made significant moves” to combat the problems.

Recent technology, particularly matching the DNA in confiscated ivory to elephant scat in Africa, is a new weapon in the war. This genetic information can help law enforcement investigations by identifying poaching locations and export routes as well as providing prosecutors with evidence in the event of an arrest.

2. The battle lines are drawn: ban wildlife trade or sanction sustainable consumptive use?

With three African elephant proposals and a white rhino proposal on the agenda, elephants and rhino are a constant topic of conversation in the Convention Centre halls.

IFAW demo

International Fund for Animal Welfare demonstration outside the Sandton Convention Centre, site of CITES CoP17, Sept. 24, 2016 (Photo © Judith Needham)

As President Zuma was talking about sustainable use inside the Convention Centre, a small demonstration was in progress in front of the main entrance.

Amid large International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, banners and watchful police, a group of about 100 protestors – men, women, and children – urged the world to stop killing and plundering wildlife.

Late in the day, the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation, CIC, sponsored a panel discussion entitled “Keep Calm and Let Africa Speak,” previously titled “Neo-Colonialism or Eco-Colonialism? Are the Voices of Africa Heard?”

In his opening remarks, moderator Dr. Ali Kaka got right to the point. “We are talking about the sustainable use of wildlife,” he said. Later in the presentation, panelist Steven Mwansa, Zambia’s Tourism and Arts Permanent Secretary, passionately summarized the CIC position, “Please leave us alone!”

Other panelists included the lithium-mining businessman and game farm owner Wilfried Pabst, Namibia’s Minister of Environment and Tourism Pohamba Shifeta, and Zimbabwe’s Environment, Water, and Climate Secretary Prince Mupazviriho Chiwewete.

3. Procedural and legal nuances matter when CITES makes decisions.

According to the treaty’s Rules of Procedure, decision making within CITES is all about consensus. “As far as possible” proposals about species or other matters are to be decided by consensus. Whenever consensus is not reached, as determined by the meeting Chair, the Parties vote.

“CITES has never shied away from a vote when it is needed,” says Scanlon.

CoP17 will consider two voting topics – secret voting and the voting procedure for the European Union.


CITES delegates fill the conference hall with drumbeats during the afternoon session, Sept. 24, 2016 (Photo courtesy ENB)

As CITES handles many politically sensitive and complicated issues, countries sometimes don’t want to make their positions public. Current procedure requires 10 votes to authorize a secret ballot. Many want to increase the 10 vote requirement up to 50 percent or even a two-thirds majority. But, before that can be decided, the Parties need to decide how to make any change to the secret ballot rules – by a 50 percent or a two-thirds majority.

On July 8, 2015, the European Union became an official voting member of CITES, the first Regional Economic Integration Organization to do so. One of the practical effects of that membership requires a decision as to when the EU can vote for its 28 Member States.

There is general agreement that either the EU can vote for the 28 Member States or each state can vote – no duplication. But, debate centers around whether the EU can vote for the member states if all are not present.

The United States and the CITES Secretariat agree that the EU should “only exercise its right to vote if all 28 EU Member States are represented at the meeting and their delegations are duly accredited.”

The voting proposals are generating considerable disagreement and will be decided either by consensus or by a vote.

Secretary-General Scanlon compares the world’s trade-wildlife meeting to a rugby game. “Rugby is a full body contact sport. … Sounds a bit like CITES sometimes, yes?”

Yet, as CoP17 begins, Scanlon is hoping for a “spirit of sportsmanship – respect for the opposing players – both on and off the field – and for the referee.”

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