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Ex secretary-general of CITES calls for conservationists to support sustainable use of wildlife

Written by: Eugene Lapointe, President of the International Wildlife Management Consortium (IWMC) World Conservation Trust

South Africa will soon play host to CoP17 – the 17th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The fact that CITES’ 12-day global gathering is being held in the Southern African region is the best opportunity yet for the wider conservation community to free itself from the eco-colonialism that has taken hold of it, and embrace conservation rooted in the sustainable use of wildlife.

©David Winch

©David Winch

During my eight years as secretary-general of CITES and, since then, as president of the International Wildlife Management Consortium (IWMC), I have never wavered in my belief that it is only viable management programmes of all the world’s wildlife and marine resources that can bring true conservation. I am also convinced that these programmes will only properly succeed if their benefits are used in favour of the livelihood of local populations. Fundamentally, I believe in restoring the balance between human beings and wildlife on planet Earth – one that I experienced as a child growing up in the Canadian wilds where I hunted and fished for food for our family.

Ours is not the prevailing or even the popular view. So extensive has been the eco-colonialists’ capture of the conservation community, and so deep are their pockets and extensive their access to the media, that you seldom hear a different viewpoint in the mainstream media. Like the arrogant and paternalistic imperialists of the past, eco-colonialists believe that the environmental strictures that they have mapped out are morally superior to any other approaches. Much like their religious and economic counterparts of a few hundred years ago, this excessive form of environmentalism will not hesitate to demand that national governments and international bodies support their viewpoint – or punish those countries or organisations stepping out of line.

This is precisely what happened with Zimbabwe’s Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE), which incorporates managed hunting as a way of generating economic benefits for local communities. In particular, through CAMPFIRE, sport hunters from the USA play a significant role in establishing a balance between local communities and elephants. This brings in much-needed income and encourages communities to regard the species as worthy of sustainable use – to be, therefore, respected and conserved. However, since the 2014 suspension of elephant imports by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) – after a misleading campaign in the American media – CAMPFIRE’s revenue has dropped, putting the future of this important, community-based conservation programme at real risk.

As CoP17 approaches, the Zimbabwean example is particularly pertinent because it is an example of how the animal rights communities of the global North use their muscle to get the global South into line when it comes to wildlife trade. But the intersection between livelihood and food security, and conservation is crucially important in Southern Africa and the many other countries in the world where the 870-million people officially designated as hungry today live.

It is for this reason that I am hoping that CoP17 supports the draft resolution on livelihoods and food security that has been prepared by Namibia, Cote d’ivoire and Antigua and Barbuda – one of many proposals to be considered at CITES. The proposal has been prepared in line with the strategic vision of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FOA) and urges CoP17 to “take into account the need for inter alia, food and nutrition security, preservation of cultural identity and security of livelihoods when making proposed amendments to the Appendices”. Supporting this proposal will demonstrate that CITES understands that poverty is the biggest enemy of conservation and, we hope, will open eyes to the relationship between food security and conservation.

The appendices – lists of species afforded different levels or types of trade control – are, in many ways, the most important element of CITES. In theory at least, Appendix I lists species that are threatened with extinction and permits trade only in exceptional circumstances, Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled, and Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a party that already protects a species and needs the cooperation of other countries to control trade.

IWMC believes that CoP17 affords CITES with the opportunity to support a proposal by Namibia and Zimbabwe to amend the annotation to the listing of the African elephant in Appendix II in such a way that they would be entitled to trade in ivory in accordance with the provisions of the convention relating to the trade in Appendix-II specimens. Our reasoning for this is sound. Indeed in 2007 we predicted, in a press release issued on 14th June 2016, that the agreement made at CITES CoP14 in The Hague, to suspend trade in ivory for nine years, would undermine elephant conservation. We take no pleasure in being proved right here but it is our view that this moratorium is driving an increase in elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade. Like just about all prohibition-based initiatives in history, CITES’ much-lauded prohibition policy has, therefore, failed its conservation objectives of the African elephant. It has also restricted the development of human populations in the range states advocating a well-managed and controlled trade, as a tool to conserve their elephant populations.

The main successes of CITES that are usually referred to relate to species that were transferred from Appendix I to Appendix II, or maintained in the latter, to allow trade in their specimens. These include crocodilians, the vicuña and the queen conch. Why not apply the same philosophy to the African elephant as well, which is producing ivory, a very valuable resource when used properly instead of being destroyed?

©David Winch

©David Winch

By doing this, CITES will demonstrate that it is able to listen to those countries – many of them in Southern Africa – that have a deeper understanding of the unbreakable relationship between humans and wild species. It is people from those communities – individuals who share their living habitat with other creatures – who have the traditional scientific knowledge needed for creating programmes devoted to the sustainable use of wildlife, not the  “laptop environmentalists” in London, Washington and Paris.

We live in a time of sweeping statements, arguments with little or no nuance and a desire for ordinary people to “do good” in ways that don’t challenge their comfort zones. In this context it is difficult to compete with the loud, populist view that all wildlife trade should be banned. This argument taps into a well of human emotions – and also into a clutch of celebrities looking for a cause. Celebrities are the worst disease in conservation. What good is a success story like the vicuña of South America (where an endangered animal is now thriving together with legal trade in the animal’s fibre) when you have celebrities making big statements about banning all trade in wildlife? Celebrities should stick to humanitarian issues where they can make a difference, and stay out of conservation.

I would urge all South Africans, both ordinary folk and members of the conservation community, to be aware of the wolf as we head into CoP17. Be wary of those who style themselves as saviours of the planet, raising huge amounts of funding for their organisations in the process. Give celebrities who support them a wide berth. Instead, welcome the best of us in the conservation community who ask you to share your knowledge and work with us to establish programmes that benefit humans and wildlife. Most of all, make your stories known. Be brave enough to stand up and go against the prevailing view if you believe the sustainable use of wildlife will benefit your community. Both human and wildlife have rights and the time to re-establish the proper balance between the two has come.

Africa Geographic Editorial

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  • I hesitate to comment as I am in the group labeled eco-colonialist – a convenient way to dismiss the majority of your critics. Twenty-seven African countries oppose this proposal, compared with the 3 that are in favour (are they eco-colonialist too or is the eco-colonialist the Canadian author of this article?). This article, like many (on both sides of the argument) is long on rhetoric and short on evidence. I would welcome the opinions of anyone who can provide the evidence, rather than the belief, that sustainable trade is the way forward.

    There have been a couple of sales of ivory permitted by CITES in the recent past, which have resulted (a couple of years down the line) in an increase in poaching of elephants (see the data on the CITES website). Given that sustainable use of wildlife is, at best, unproven, it makes sense to take action to close down the legal markets that provide a smokescreen for the illegal markets to hide behind.

    The arguments in favour of limited trade are financial and human-centred. It is time to look at the eco-system as a whole and not make the short-term welfare of our own species the primary objective of our decisions. In the long-term we will suffer too and, by then, it will be too late to save many of Africas iconic species.

    • 1Zoo1

      Please see South Africa’s success. Private game ownership and private land ownership has seen game numbers increase exponentially. From about 500 000 in the late 1960s to over 20 000 000 today.

      Game is now more numerous than cattle all thanks to sustainable use – and that demands commercial hunting. The benefits to the environment are enormous as pesticides and herbicides are no longer needed. Many are noticing how bushveld birds are becoming more common in Johannesburg for example.

      Over 75% of South Africa’s bushveld is under private management now because game farming is viable.

      Many species, once almost extinct, have been brought back by commercial hunting – the black wildebeest, sable, roan, bontebok, mountain zebra and soon the giant sable too. All these will be common enough to hunt sustainably.

      Isn’t that what we want – lots and lots of biodiversity and all our iconic species thriving alongside Man?

      • I don’t have a problem with hunting. My issue is that there is no evidence that legalising the trade in ivory and rhino horn will reduce poaching. In fact, as Africa Geographic pointed out last week –, the evidence is that demand far outstrips the potential legal supply. Much of the illegal ivory that travels around the world at the moment, poses as legal ivory. Only stopping all trade will prevent this from happening. I know that a legal trade helps finance conservation and motivates communities to preserve the wildlife around them, but if the animals are wiped out worldwide faster than they breed in the areas that permit sustainable hunting, we are not helping them in the long run.

        • 1Zoo1

          Legal trade does finance the conservation of the species.

          Long term, discouraging the ivory trade would be the solution, but until then, adaptation is the key.

          You can trace the upsurge in rhino poaching directly to the moratorium on trade for example.

          Making it illegal creates a false economy of value which means poaching is viable.

          Rather have it legalized so it can be monitored and controlled, than illegal fighting unknown enemies with dark markets.

          What is true, is that banning the trade has not worked, and has made the problems worse. just like Prohibition.

          • I think we will have to agree to differ on this point.

            The data, also, can be used to link the current upsurge in elephant poaching to the limited sales of ivory that were permitted by CITES in 2008. This followed a drop in elephant poaching that was close to 90% after CITES effectively banned the sales of ivory in 1989 – that means that poaching was litterally decimated by the ban, it increased again only after more ivory had (legally) been added to the market. I have written an article on my website with links to the sources of this data (which I can supply if you want).

            As I indicated in my previous reply, permitting limited sales may have a local benefit but it leads to an increase in demand (as happened after 2008) which has a devastating effect elsewhere. Saving a species involves more than running a few successfully financed and managed parks in southern Africa, important though that may be.

            There have been articles written linking the increase in demand for ivory and rhino horn to people using it as a form of investment. Preventing ivory from ever being traded is the only way to remove the value from these investments and therefore reducing the demand.

          • 1Zoo1


          • Got to agree with you Alan. It’s one thing to hunt farmed wildebeest or whatever but not the same when you hunt elephants rhinos and lion.

          • Thank you Chris.

  • Chaminuka

    David I agree with you. Fundamentally we lost it as Africans when we watched as they introduced market norms into conservation in our communities that had long lived in harmony with wildlife because of long held social norms in many of our African countries. Now because they can’t control this monster they go about instructing us to stop wildlife trade.

    This CoP thing is a joke, we know the most critical threat to wildlife in particular elephants is loss of habitat. Poaching is a problem but it won’t be stopped by banning hunting. Why is it that the very countries that said no to hunting continue to see a decline in wildlife populations with exceptions of TZ who basically need to sort out their system. Some countries make a lot of noise about hunting (in any case they always dance to other people’s tune, those who hold the cash) but they are silently degazzeting protected areas in favor of ill planned infrastructural projects. Hear me – if we manage to stop elephant poaching today, and return to this 600 000+ continental heard we dream of, do we have the space to sustain it. It is the very programs like CAMPFIRE that will ensure we have this space.

    For CoP17 to succeed I would say members countries should have a closed door conference, shut out these conservation NGOs who say positions without substance or real solutions. You Africans should show pride in ownership of their wildlife, I say give us the space to make decisions about our wildlife and whatever decision we make support that – then we will know this wildlife is ours after all.

  • So isn’t eco tourism as sustainable use of wildlife? From all I’ve read it generates a vast amount more money and supports of much greater number of jobs than hunting. So why kill the goose that lays the golden egg by allowing trophy hunting, especially of endamgered species?

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