Our Conservation Community partners, Care for the Wild are a small charity dedicated to the protection of wildlife in the UK and around the globe. With the help of Healthy Planet, Care for the Wild has been able to support multiple conservation projects which aim to prevent poaching and reduce human-wildlife conflicts in Kenya. Their CEO, Philip Mansbridge, attended the recent CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) conference in Bangkok and has kindly shared this experience with us.
Ebony and ivory in perfect harmony at CITES?
A rush of recent news headlines focussing on elephants, rhinos, polar bears and even ebony means one thing – CITES has been in town. Or to be precise, in Bangkok, which has been hosting the triennial conference which lays down the law on which ‘endangered species’ can be traded – and which can’t.
I’ve been here in Thailand to watch the event close up, and to try and ensure that the views of Care for the Wild and other animal welfare organisations are listened to. Naturally, in some cases they were, in others they weren’t.
So what’s actually happened, and what does it mean? Here are a few highlights (and lowlights) which give a feel for the impact CITES can have, and the way individuals like you and I can help.
On Land: elephants and ivory
The conference opened with a statement from the Thai Prime Minister, saying that Thailand was going to ban the sale of its domestic ivory within the country. If this actually happens – the statement was by no means clear on this – then it would be a crucial step.
Anyone visiting Bangkok knows that ivory in the form of trinkets, statues and so on is freely available. How can this be, when elephants are endangered? Well, Thailand currently allows the sale of ivory taken from its own elephant population. Unfortunately, this means that ivory taken from African elephants can easily be passed off as ‘domestic’ – thus Thailand has become one of the biggest world markets for illegal ivory. A domestic ban therefore would be a huge step, if it happens.
Rhino horn – Image provided by Care for the Wild.
This talk of trade and marketplaces can often be difficult to understand, but it’s a crucial part of the ivory conundrum (and similarly with rhino horn). Calls are rising once again for one-off legal sales of ivory stockpiles – the argument being that if the market is flooded with legal ivory, then it won’t be worth the poachers’ while to kill animals.
Logical as that may sound, it won’t work. We know this because it’s been done before, a couple of times in recent history, and all the evidence suggests that rather than quelling poaching, it actually encouraged it – a flooded marketplace means more customers want ivory, so demand increases, and therefore poachers step in – to devastating effect recently – to meet that demand.
Astonishingly (yet at the same time unsurprisingly), there were the first murmurrings from South Africa about the potential legalising of rhino horn. The landowners who raise rhino in that country and who, to be fair, have contributed to an increase in rhino numbers over the last two decades, unanimously want rhino horn legalised. But – see above – we cannot see how this can possibly benefit anyone other than said landowners who will become millionaires overnight.
In the Sea: marine life
One of the lowlights of the conference for us was a decision not to ‘uplist’ polar bears, meaning that it is still legal in Canada to hunt them and export the bodies/parts out of the country. This one was a good example of how the politics of CITES can mask an underlying need.
Are polar bears in danger? There were arguments and counter-arguments about the numbers and the science; with most agreeing that the main threat to these amazing animals is climate change. But the trade, which sees the skins of 500 bears exported a year, is also having a major impact – at least that’s what we and many other animal welfare organisations believe. (We have been funding polar bear research in Canada for several years, so have some clue what we’re talking about).
Under the rules of CITES, there was enough evidence for the bears to be protected – but politics won the day. Apparently the plight of the polar bears isn’t urgent enough. But do we have to wait until the last bear is standing before we do anything?
Better news though came for sharks, manta rays and turtles. These nicely illustrate the different demands placed on wildlife: sharks are killed (brutally) at the rate of 100 million a year to make shark fin soup; manta ray gills are needed for traditional Asian medicines; and turtles are prized by pet owners.
All of these species are endangered, with some sub-species on the verge of extinction. These decisions are a reminder that animals aren’t just another commodity: when the cuddly animal toys run out in the shop, there’s always another one to take its place. That’s not the case for the real thing.
How you can help!
So CITES has its place, and by restricting trade it can do a lot of good. But as with any meeting, if the delegates don’t follow up on their action points, then the whole exercise is pointless.
In the ivory example, trade bans mean nothing if the elephant range countries don’t protect the animals, the customs people don’t protect the borders, and the market countries don’t educate the customers.
Governments therefore need to do more. And for governments to do more, people need to do more to show that they demand action. Anyone reading this who wants to act can help by contacting the relevant people – e.g. for rhino horn, why not contact the Vietnam Embassy in London? For polar bears, why not give the Canadian government a nudge?
And you can also support charities like ours, who will continue to fight on behalf of wildlife on a range of projects across the world. That way, we can continue to push for what we believe in – a world in which the needs of wildlife are never an afterthought to the needs for growth, development, profit, sport or greed.
Elephants in Tsavo National Park, Kenya.
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This Blog was written by Philip Mansbridge, CEO at Care for the Wild and edited by Nicole Costantini, Conservation Community Intern at Healthy Planet.