Political "Spin" and Wildlife Conservation
By Adam M. Roberts
The Eleventh Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) concluded in Nairobi, Kenya on April 20, 2000. The 151 nations that are signatories to the Convention considered over sixty proposals regarding levels of protection for wildlife threatened by consumption for international trade. Appendix I species are threatened with extinction and are or may be affected by international trade and are subject to a prohibition on international commercial trade; Appendix II species are not yet threatened with extinction but may be at risk without strict regulation of the legal international commercial trafficking in these species' parts and products made from them; Appendix III species are identified by individual Parties as subject to internal regulation to prevent over-exploitation.
AWI's positions on these proposals were supported in over half the votes—clear victories; in about a third of the votes we clearly lost; and the remaining proposals were amended in some compromise fashion (for instance, not changing the species' status, but specifically disallowing trade in specimens, known as a "zero quota").
Did animal advocates or wildlife exploiters prevail overall at this CITES Meeting? It depends on whose reports you read. Politics and political debate in Washington, DC is often dominated by political "spin" when policy debates end, each side attempts to portray itself the victor in the press and to the public. 8,000 miles away from Washington in Nairobi, molded media messages bombarded the news on a daily basis as opposing forces claimed triumph on a host of issues.
In 1997, CITES Parties undermined the nearly decade-long ban on the global trade in elephant ivory by downlisting from Appendix I to Appendix II the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to allow sale of hunting trophies, live animals, hides and leather goods (for Zimbabwe), and a total of 59.1 tons of raw ivory to Japan.
Elephant poaching escalated once the ivory trade was reopened. Numerous reports circulated in Nairobi revealing the carnage. The Born Free Foundation's Stop the Clock Report analyzed elephant poaching and ivory confiscation data for a number of countries. While the CITES Secretariat's official figures claim "235 elephants poached" in 1998 and 1999, Born Free's analysis shows a conservative figure of 6,159 elephants poached in 1998 and 1999 26.2 times the "official" record. Considering potential for underreporting, Born Free estimates the actual kill may be up to five times higher.
But despite reported rampant poaching across Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe petitioned to open the ivory trade further to allow a combined 24 tons of ivory to be exported annually and for all three countries to trade in elephant hides, leather goods, trophies, and live animals. In addition, South Africa proposed to downlist its elephant population to allow 30 tons of ivory to be sold as well as other elephant parts and live animals.
Kenya and India, both facing an upsurge in elephant poaching since 1997 and desperately underfunded and understaffed in their anti-poaching efforts, proposed putting all elephants back on Appendix I and opposed South Africa's new weakening proposal.
"Consensus building" was a clear theme of the Meeting especially regarding African elephant range state opinions on the future of elephants and the trade in elephant ivory. Anticipation of an explosive debate evaporated when Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe all withdrew their proposals (thus leaving their elephants on Appendix II but not allowing further trade in ivory); Kenya withdrew its uplisting proposal; and South Africa's proposal, which was amended to remove the ivory sale, was adopted by consensus.
This is where the biggest media "spin" begins. If one reads pro-ivory trade organizations' literature, such as a press release from the International Wildlife Managers Consortium -World Conservation Trust (IWMC) the compromise was a "Win for Sustainable Conservation of Elephants and Patience of Southern African Nations." The President of this pro-use organization is actually Eugène Lapointe, former Secretary-General of CITES. But for us, the clear message is that the ivory experiment failed once more and bloody ivory is again illegal in international trade.
A disturbing element of the elephant debate (or ultimate lack thereof) was America's impotence. Historically a vocal opponent of the ivory trade, the U.S. voice was silent throughout. In fact, the "final" U.S. negotiating position on the elephant proposals was not final at all it was "pending." The U.S. would have opposed proposals that permitted any ivory trade but would have abstained on the proposal by Kenya and India to put elephants back on Appendix I.
In another example of political spin, when President Clinton issued a one-paragraph statement saying that the U.S. would oppose proposals "to reopen trade in elephant ivory," the IWMC's pro-use propaganda reported: "U.S. Congress, President Clash Over Elephants." Why this supposed "clash?" Six Members of Congress sent a letter to the head of the U.S. Delegation urging support for the expanded ivory sale. What's purposely excluded from this report is reference to other letters from the Legislative Branch to the same Head of Delegation urging opposition to the ivory trade and support for Kenya and India -- not one meager letter signed by six Congressmen, but 4 separate letters: one signed by Congressman George Miller, the Ranking Minority Member of the House Resources Committee, one signed by the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member of the House International Relations Committee, one signed by 20 Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and one signed by 25 Members of the United States Senate. The Senate letter concluded: "At this critical juncture, we believe it will take the full energy and commitment of the United States delegation to return to elephant populations the protections they still need." Unfortunately, the U.S. exerted little energy and displayed little commitment toward the legislators' laudable goal.
Shutting down the ivory trade again - even without U.S. help - was vital, but the tone of the dialogue makes it clear that the issue will resurface repeatedly. Over the next two years, much time, effort, and money will be devoted to establishing a monitoring system to examine illegal killing of elephants, and when the "system" appears to work, in all likelihood, legal ivory will flow again. The problems with this approach are too numerous to detail here, but in brief, the millions of dollars spent establishing this system would be better spent on anti-poaching efforts in elephant range states. Instead of monitoring elephant killing, why not try to stop elephant killing? There will never be a legal ivory trade that does not result in the illegal slaughter of elephants; machinations to find ways of facilitating such trade are a waste of time and resources that could be better focused on conserving wild, live elephants.
Clearer hard-fought victories came for whales and sea turtles. But reading the "spin" from the High North Alliance, a pro-whaling organization, one might think the whales were doomed: "A majority of government delegates to [CITES] today voted in support of Norway's proposal to open international trade in minke whale products." Although the vote was 53 in favor, 52 opposed, and 8 abstentions, CITES requires a 2/3 vote to approve a change in a species' status not a simple majority.
Three other whale downlisting proposals by Japan regarding gray and minke whales were all soundly rejected with the closest vote still having 18 more nations opposed than in favor far from even a simple majority. Together, Japan and Norway consistently try to weaken protection for these whale species and undermine the current moratorium on commercial whaling. There is no enforcement regime in place to control international trade in whale products and illegal whale meat recently has been found for sale in Japanese markets. Downlisting any of these whale populations would pose an enormous threat to all whale species.
Not surprisingly, each attempt to weaken whale protection at this CITES meeting was undertaken by a secret ballot. Nations advocating use of the secret ballot on controversial votes claim it is necessary to prevent retaliation from developed countries and conservation nongovernmental organizations that somehow if we know who votes for the whale downlisting we will try to eliminate their foreign aid. For instance, during the whale debates, a vociferous delegate from Antigua and Barbuda argued against the "strong-arm tactics of those countries who don't think we have a right to exploit our natural resources."
This conspiracy theory is all the more fascinating given that an article in the London Guardian Weekly from 18 November 1999 reports, "Japan has admitted for the first time that it is using its overseas aid budget to persuade developing countries to join the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and vote for a resumption of commercial whaling." The revealing article continues to note that IWC Secretary Ray Gambell alleged that "Japan was using the same tactics" at CITES.
The simple message from CITES is that the IWC has primacy in cetacean protection and that CITES should respect the IWC's ban on commercial whaling. Of course, Japan and Norway will continue their attempts to profit from slaughtered whales when the IWC meets in Adelaide, Australia this July.
Although elephants and whales dominated the debate, CITES Secretary General Willem Wijnstekers accurately noted in his opening statement "This meeting is not about elephants, it is also about elephants, it is not about whales, it is also about whales."
Strong rhetoric surrounded the dialogue on downlisting critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles from Appendix I to Appendix II to allow trade in stockpiled turtle shell from Cuba to Japan and establish an annual quota of not more than 500 specimens. A report from the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society asserts that "Reopening of international trade of "bekko" [tortoiseshell] will also increase the possibility of its smuggling by reactivating Japan's domestic market for it."
Even though this proposal claimed to be restricted to the "Cuban population" of hawksbills, there is no discrete Cuban population of this species. Imagine being a poor sea turtle who mistakenly swims through Cuban waters at the wrong time! Already the hawksbill has been subjected to an 80% worldwide population decline. Clearly, as with whales and other species, allowing the sale of sea turtle shell will encourage sea turtle poaching in other regions and illegal sale of those shells and products made from them.
The debate was filled with high emotions and not-so-subtle political jabs at the U.S. for its embargo on Cuba (an argument that to compensate for lost national revenue as a result of the embargo, Cuba should benefit financially from wildlife exploitation). Ultimately, the proposal was defeated, again by secret ballot.
In addition to preserving the protection for whales and sea turtles, notable increases in protection were given to the manatee-like Australian Dugong, the Horned and Uvea Parakeets of New Caledonia, China's Melodious Laughing Thrush, Asian Box Turtles, and Madagascar's Mantella Frogs.
Marine fish species did not quite fare as well. The Parties refused to list three species of sharks: great white sharks, whale sharks, and basking sharks. All three species have low reproductive rates and declining populations, and are killed for their fins and other body parts. Fins float in high-priced Asian "shark fin soup;" basking shark skin is made into leather goods; great white shark livers are used for medicines, and shark meat is sold for human consumption. Unfortunately, all three proposals were defeated on the grounds that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has competency over fisheries management. (The FAO has begun considering shark conservation and has developed an "International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks.")
CITES also considered over 50 resolutions and other documents and on many of these issues we had success. On the trade in bear specimens, the Parties again fell short of advocating a global moratorium on the trade in bear parts such as the gallbladders and bile that are used in traditional Asian medicines. However, it was recognized that the illegal trade in bear parts and derivatives has not been demonstrably reduced, a goal the Parties agreed upon in 1997. This year, the Parties agreed to continue seeking information about national legislation to control the illegal bear parts trade, to share forensic technology to help distinguish bear parts in trade, and to consider introducing measures to implement CITES with respect to the trade in bear parts and derivatives. The issue will be revisited again at the next CITES meeting.
For the first time the Parties have addressed the issue of "bushmeat," the consumption, and increasingly the cross-border sale, of wild animal flesh including elephants, primates such as gorillas, and other species. What was once an issue of local consumption has become a growing international crisis, fomented by unsympathetic logging companies. In an editorial in The Washington Post on April 8, 2000, Dr. Jane Goodall advocated the "simple, straightforward step" of forming "an official working group that would be charged with the development of ways to control the illegal trade in bushmeat." That is exactly what the Parties agreed to in Nairobi.
The Parties also agreed that immediate action is necessary to save the fewer than 75,000 remaining Tibetan antelope (chiru) from the trade in their wool known as "shahtoosh." It is estimated that western demand for this luxurious fabric leads to the illegal slaughter of between ten and twenty thousand chiru annually. At this rate, the species may be gone in just 5 years. The resolution approved by the Parties urges a number of actions including adoption of comprehensive legislation to eliminate the commercial trade in shahtoosh with adequate penalties to deter such illegal commerce. Just after the close of the Conference, the Jammu and Kashmir high court issued a judgment banning the shahtoosh trade in the Indian state of Kashmir. And, here in the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the chiru under the Endangered Species Act. The Service has until October to make its final ruling. Ultimately, CITES Parties made advancements on important issues of wildlife conservation. Stopping over-exploitation of wild species in international trade is an ongoing process. As we look toward and beyond the next Conference in Chile in 2002, the message to the world is: "no ivory, no whale meat, no sea turtle shell" and substantial protection for scores of other wild species. As always, the lingering question is: "but for how long?"
Top Photo, African Sunset by Adam Roberts
Second Photo, The bond of wild elephant families is incredibly strong. Elephants, The Deciding Decade, that elephants seem to have "displayed compassion and awareness of death. There are stories of elephants using leaves and grass to bury elephant and human remains, and shattering the tusks of dead elephants against trees or rocks." Although CITES has reinstated the international prohibition in ivory commercialization, the elephants of South Africa, Botswana, Nambia and Zimbabwe may still be hunted as trophies, for meat and other non-ivory products, and sold live to zoos and circuses across the globe. Continued vigilance is needed to save elephants for future generations. (Katy Payne)
Third Photo, A young elephant at Daphne Sheldrick's wildlife orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. Daphne and her committed corps of specialized animal handlers help rear young orphaned wildlife including elephants, rhinos, and zebras with the ultimate goal if reintroduction in the wild. (Adam M. Roberts/AWI)
Fourth Photo, Minke whale butchered on a Japanese whaling boat in the Antarctic. (WDCS/Mark Votier)
Fifth Photo, According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, despite the 1986 IWC ban on commercial whaling, Japan and Norway kill over 1,000 minke whales each year. (Robert Pitman)
Sixth Photo, CITES Parties rejected Cuba's attempt to sell a stockpile of hawksbill turtle shells to the avid wildlife consuming nation of Japan. (Yves Berard/1997 Oceanographical Museum of Monaco)
Bottom Photo, A logging vehicle in Central Africa transports both hunters and their fresh kill for the bushmeat market. Numerous species are involved in the trade including chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, elephants, duikers (as pictured) and other antelopes. (John Sidle)