CITES 1997 Conference

Showdown in Zimbabwe

by Ben White

As one who presumes to work for wildlife and wild places, I sometimesfeel their presence peering over my shoulder to see if I am holding trueto their concerns. Never have I felt this scrutiny as much as during thetwo weeks I spent in Harare, Zimbabwe, at the tenth Conference of the Parties(COP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species ofWild Fauna and Flora (CITES). There, the survival or destruction of millionsof creatures and millions of acres of critical habitat was decided, allby a relatively small group of human beings in one place. Before leavingfor the meeting, I wondered what the animals and plants whose survival—andworth—was being debated would say in my place.

CITES is a system of agreements between countries that tries to strikea balance, offering three levels of protection: Appendix I bans all internationaltrade except for hunting trophies and live animals "not to be usedfor primarily commercial purposes." Appendix II allows some tradein the species within specified limits. Appendix III lists species namedby individual nations for protected status.

At the Hararemeeting, the non-governmental organization (NGO) observers representingconservation and animal protection were far outnumbered by "sustainableuse" advocates, those that traffic in wildlife, trophy hunters andwhalers. Even the physical setting was daunting. A visitor to the conventionhall attached to the Harare Sheraton had to pass by the frozen glare ofmany African animals—such as Cape Buffalo and Cheetah—their bodies stuffedand mounted, their spirit gone. Day by day, as the first week wore on,the tenor of debate became slightly more acrimonious. More than a conflictbetween countries, CITES is a battleground of ideas and shifting attitudes.Some say that in our crowded world endangered species must have a monetaryvalue, must "pay their own way" in order to justify their preservation.Some hold that all forms of life are resources and that the task at handis to create a way for people to "sustainably use" them. Othersbelieve that we should manage human affairs in such a way that, at least,no more species are driven to extinction, and that the allowable tradein endangered species should be zero.

Advocacy groups of every persuasion held forth from their booths. Thepro-whaling High North Alliance offered T-shirts that had the slogans "IntelligentPeople Need Intelligent Food" and "Save a Whale—For Dinner,"bannered above prostrate cartoon whales.

For two weeksCITES gave thumbs up or down on proposal after proposal to either listfor the first time or uplist (both giving greater-than present protection),downlist (removing some protection), or delist (remove from the Appendicescompletely) for dozens of species that are traded but threatened. One measuredecided at the conference was a proposal by Japan to circumvent the InternationalWhaling Commission's ban on commercial whaling, and establish a systemto trade in whalemeat. A secret vote was requested by Japan, and the resolutionwas rejected.

A seemingly insignificant change in wording was pro-posed by Namibiato alter the definition of the words "for primarily commercial purposes"in the protection offered by Appendix I. The change would have allowedgovernments to sell off any stockpiles of endangered animal or plant partsor "harvests" of so-called "nuisance animals" withoutthe sale being considered "for primarily commercial purposes."Nuisance animals could include anything from elephants in Africa to macawsin Central America; the proposal was withdrawn. Our greatest early victoriesat CITES involved whales. Three different populations of minke whales,one of Brydes (pronounced brutus) whales, and the US population of Californiagrey whales were proposed to be downlisted so that their meat could beinternationally traded. Whale advocates lobbied and coaxed. In the endthe whales won the vote. Even though the Norwegian proposal to downlistthe minke whales in their neck of the woods received a majority, it fellwell short of the 2/3 majority required to downlist.

Lending urgency to the proceedings were the reports of new pirate whalingin the North Atlantic, perhaps in anticipation of the relaxation of ruleson the selling of whalemeat. At least six yachts have recently reportedfinding dead or dying sperm whales with radar marker buoys attached waitingto be picked up by some unknown whaler. The Portuguese have responded bysending a patrol vessel out from the Azores to try to find the outlaw.

Bears did not fare well at CITES. The proposals by Finland, Bulgariaand Jordan to increase protection for all brown bears outside North Americawere soundly defeated, despite Jordan's unwavering defense. Fierce oppositionby brown bear range states including the Russian Federation, Romania, andthe Czech Republic made it difficult for many countries to support thespecies' uplisting.

The resolution ultimately passed by the Parties on Conservation of andTrade in Bears was hollow. Although it calls on Parties to improve nationallegislation and enforcement "to demonstrably reduce the illegal tradein bear parts," it does not call for a voluntary suspension of thebear parts trade, a measure that AWI has long supported. In fact, the UnitedStates announced just prior to the Conference that it would support sucha moratorium if recommended by other Parties, but no such suggestion wasproffered. China, seemingly supportive leading up to the Conference, soldout the bears when it counted most. Even a modest amendment proposed byIndia to attempt to "eliminate" the illegal bear parts trade—ratherthan simply reduce it—was defeated as an unrealistic goal.

Lastly, a resolution was adopted concerning the use of endangered speciesin traditional Asian medicines. Included is an unacceptable recommendationthat Parties "consider, where appropriate and with sufficient safeguards,the application of artificial propagation and, in certain circumstances,captive breeding, in meeting the needs of traditional medicine." Toits credit, the United States proposed to amend the line to consider the"impact" rather than "application" of captive breedingfacilities, which, of course, will include the deplorable Chinese bearfarms. China spoke out against the simple but beneficial language changeand the document was approved without the US amendment.

The proposals by the US to increase protection for 12 species of mapturtles and the alligator snapping turtle were watered down and defeatedor withdrawn. The reason given for the retreat of the US team was intensepressure from the state fish and wildlife agencies—under the banner ofthe International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies—to leave protectionup to the states.

Tuesday of the second week saw the Great Elephant Showdown. When thesmoke finally cleared, 62 out of the 123 countries eligible to vote hadmade comments in the heated debate. When it appeared that the individualproposals from Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe might fail to reach themagical 2/3 margin of success, South Africa introduced an amendment thatmade the downlisting slightly more palatable to some. The amendment wasessentially window dressing, saying that the sale of ivory would be limitedto a one shot deal: the three countries would only sell the almost 50 tonsof ivory they now hold between them to one buyer (Japan) and that therewould be no sales for eighteen months. Being slightly more restrictive,the South African plan was seen as having the best chance to pass. In aknuckle-biting secret vote, the amendment failed by just three votes togain the 2/3. Those of us fighting for keeping the ban on ivory in orderto stop poaching breathed an enormous sigh. NGO observers were relegatedto a balcony, and looking down on the floor, I saw Israeli delegate andwildlife champion Bill Clark slump in his chair almost to the floor ina gesture of relief and exhaustion. It was expected that, although latein the day, the votes would be taken on the more liberal downlisting proposalsof the three states and, most likely, they would be defeated— one, two,three. But it was not to be. In a blatantly partisan ruling by David Brackett,Canadian chair of Committee I, the debate was stopped. Instead of votingon the proposals once and for all, he ordered the formation of a workinggroup under (strongly pro-use) Norway, with the participation of the threeAfrican states wanting downlisting along with Japan and the European Union.The next day this working group produced a "consensus" documentalmost identical to the failed South African amendment. In a startlinglyabrupt manner, this "compromise" then sailed right through, easilygaining 2/3 of the votes. Then the individual proposals were approved—Botswana,Namibia, and finally, Zimbabwe. When the Zimbabwe elephant downlistingcleared, jubilation reigned. Parks employees danced and hugged each other.

Rows of scrubbed schoolchildren in British style uniforms and strawhats cheered and applauded. A man stood up in the upper balcony, and—withouta murmur of interruption from the chair—sang out the long national anthemin a ringing baritone.

The concerns of the countries of Africa still under siege from wellarmed poachers had been ignored, as well as those from India and Bangladeshthat had already seen an upsurge in the killing of Indian elephants justin anticipation of the possible downlisting. In eighteen months the tradeof ivory, although supposedly severely restricted, will resume. Clearly,when it appeared the downlisting would be defeated, the committee chairhalted the process, shifted gears, and came up with the desired result.Perhaps it was naïve for me to assume, given the money riding on thedecisions, that we would see a fair fight in Harare.

Each morning, the local newspaper, The Herald, was slipped under eachhotel room door, and each morning the headline greeted delegates with pro-ivorytrade propaganda. Each time the television was turned on there were pro-ivorynews interviews and half-hour CAMPFIRE infomercials. Animal welfare andconservation NGOs got our share of press attention, too, but the publicitywas for the most part antagonistic to the West and considerably favorabletoward the elephant downlisting. The dual international trades in wildlifeand drugs have become increasingly intertwined, bringing odd bedfellowsinto the conference. The enormously powerful Russian mafia was said tobe in attendance, interested, among other things, in the unrestricted flowof caviar (the uplisting of sturgeon products was amended to permit a generousallowance for "personal consumption"). Many of the proposalsto restrict the huge trade in wild birds failed, perhaps partly due tothe popularity of packing cocaine inside already dead birds in the bottomof the shipping cages. One dedicated activist from the Caribbean confidedto me that in the last year she has had both her house and her sailboatdestroyed by drug runners angry at her effectiveness in exposing the drug/wildlifetrade link.

After the Wednesday vote downlisting the elephants the committees zoomedthrough dozens of life-or-death proposals with little debate, as if a logjam had been broken and permission to elbow aside any nagging concernsabout endangered species had been found.

Even though it was strongly supported by both the major importer (US)and the major exporter (Bolivia), the proposal to increase protection ofbigleaf mahogany was voted down, defeated by timber interests for the thirdtime in a row. Also defeated were the uplisting of sawfishes, mantellafrogs, timber rattlesnakes, Kara Tau argalis, several species of parakeets,lorikeets, and cockatoos, and the cloth from wild vicunas. Protection wasdecreased on the export of leopard trophies and skins, tree kangaroos,Nile crocodiles, collared peccary, and the pearly mussel.

In the lastblitz, we did eke out a few victories. A proposal from Venezuela to establisha quota for exporting Jaguars failed, and the proposals to allow the saleof white rhino horn from South Africa, and the renewed trade in hawksbill(sea) turtles from Cuba failed. "Sustainable use" proponentsargue that if we bunny-hugging richer countries want wild elephants, zebrasand giraffes in our world then we should pay for the privilege. They havea point. However, that is already happening with the thousands of touriststhat pack the buses to come to see the exotic fauna. The concept that animalscan best be "sustainably used" by killing them and trading intheir body parts is both wildly optimistic and contrary to history. The"sustainable" lethal use of any wildlife has never been our strongsuit. The current global collapse of fisheries, the whaling industry, theancient decimation of beavers and birds for hats are all examples of marketeconomies that became engines of annihilation. Once identified as a re-source,the world's diversity becomes a coin that can be spent, saved, or convertedinto gold.

Nonetheless, "sustainable use" became the mantra of the CITESconference. If we are going to be successful being the voice of animalsit would appear that we need to clarify what that means: a way for localpeople to make money from the very existence of wild animals—living wherethey live—wild and free. Encouraging the market economy of endangered animalsand plants just invites plunder, with the local economies no better forthe loss. We need to think clearly how best to stop the commoditizationof the wild. And we need to say over and over that our global choice isnot animals versus people but greed versus community.



What Happened in Harare: an Overview

  • Hawksbill sea turtles: A move to downlist Cuban populations to AppendixII, thus opening trade, was rejected.
  • Elephants: Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe's proposal for limited ivorytrade, allowing them to sell their stockpiles, was amended and adopted(see sidebar at right).
  • Redefinition of primarily commercial purposes: Namibia's resolutionwould have opened the door for large exports of Appendix I species, incontravention of the convention. The proposal was withdrawn.
  • Brown bear: The resolution by Finland, Bulgaria and Jordan to uplistall European, Eurasian, Caucasian and Asian populations from Appendix IIto Appendix I was rejected.
  • Jaguar: Venezuela's attempt to establish an export quota for huntingtrophies starting in 3 years was withdrawn.
  • Bigleaf mahogany: the US and Bolivia's attempt to list bigleaf mahoganyon Appendix II, monitoring trade, was rejected.
  • Southern white rhinoceros: South Africa's proposal to allow trade inrhino horns and other rhino products was rejected.
  • Illegal trade: the US's move to form a CITES illegal trade workingoup,to assist in enforcement efforts, was rejected.
  • Whaling: Japan's attempt to interfere with the International WhalingCommission, and weaken CITES protection for whales, was rejected.No whale downlisting proposals were passed.
  • Thailand's proposals to list the banteng and wild Asian buffalo onAppendix I were both withdrawn.
  • Green-cheeked Amazon parrot: the effort to transfer this rare Mexicanparrot to Appendix I was passed.


What the Ivory Decision
Does—and Doesn't—Mean

The recently accepted deal on ivory was still a crushing blow for elephants,despite its defenders' rosy predictions of strict controls on the trade.Even the most sharply limited trade offers untold opportunities for launderingand stimulates poaching" speculative poaching," based on thehope that full-blown ivory trade will recommence. According to wildlifeconsultant Ian Redmond, "many wildlife departments are now bracingthemselves for an upsurge in poaching activities, and police and customsface a similar increase in smuggling."

It is important to understand just what the decision entails, says Redmond."Even though the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwehave been 'downlisted' from Appendix I to Appendix II of CITES, the movecarries with it stringent precautions before a legal ivory trade can commence.The downlisting [which comes into effect September 18] allows only thesethree countries to export hunting trophies, live animals and, for Zimbabwealone, elephant hide and locally carved ivory curios." Eighteen monthslater, trade in ivory could then be permitted to Japan, provided—amongnumerous other conditions—that current deficiencies in enforcement andivory control are remedied as verified by the Standing Committee, and mechanismsare in place "to reinvest trade revenues into elephant conservation."

Longtime activist Ben White (see "Nightwork in Japan,"AWI Quarterly, Spring 1993) has joined AWI's staff as Wildlife Investigator.His specialty is marine mammals.

Leakey, Proud to Be a "Bunny Hugger"

The famous paleontologist and (retired) Kenyan Wildlife Service headRichard Leakey spoke at the Species Survival Network's reception in Harare,June 12. Starting out by explaining how he always makes a point of leavingZimbabwe within 18 hours of any controversial speech he makes (and thathe was leaving first thing in the morning) he went on to deliver an impassionedplea to not downlist elephants. "I am entirely opposed to any resumptionof any international trade in ivory," he said. "The practiceof the trade under present circumstances in both producer and consumercountries is untenable."

He appealedto the hall packed with delegates and observers to remember that the wholereason for CITES is to protect endangered species, not necessarily economicinterests: "The money to be made from trading ivory may be substantialfor individuals but is a pittance for governments. Governments are supposedlythere to serve the people and I believe that, if these governments wantedto well serve their people, they will stand firm and ensure that the ivorytrade remains banned indefinitely."

Finally, he defiantly announced that he for one was not afraid to becalled a "bunny hugger." Whipping a pink toy plush bunny outof his back pocket he cradled it into his burly red cheek and patted itsweetly on the back. "I do not feel guilty or uncomfortable,"he said, "when I am accused of being 'on the side of wildlife': Icare and so do millions of other people in every part of the world. Wemust be heard, we must stand tall and remember that a species is lost forall time."

AWI Quarterly, Spring/Summer 1997, Volume 46, numbers 2 & 3