To Trade or Not to Trade? the African Elephant and CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species]

Article excerpt

The survival of the African elephant is a conservation story with all the usual elements: rapidly rising fears of near extinction; intense involvement by biologists, park administrators, environmental activists, and poachers; and, unfortunately, significant problems because of its relative success. Simply put, there are too many elephants and there is too little space. In southern Africa, human population growth and development severely limit the rangespace available for elephants. While poaching has never stopped entirely, recent efforts to curtail it have resulted in increased elephant populations which in turn have become a genuine nuisance to local farmers, destroying cropland and occasionally trampling a village.

The even more dramatic twist in the elephant story, however, can be found in its international context. In 1989 a ban on the ivory trade made headlines and fairly quickly resulted in a renewed prospect for elephant survival. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) imposed the ban after a great deal of political bargaining and confrontation. That the ban was achieved in the face of intransigence from many importers and exporters of ivory was heralded as a great success for the wildlife protection movement. In 1997, however, a CITES conference approved a partial lifting of the ban to allow three southern African countries (Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe) to sell to Japan in two year's time sixty tons of stockpiled ivory.

Predictably, this once-only exception to the ban, which carries with it fairly stringent restrictions, is decried by some and applauded by others. Opponents argue that it opens the floodgates to renewed poaching and the legitimization of a trade they had wanted to see banished from ethical acceptance. However, although the power of the elephant as a conservation symbol is important and the need for strict controls on the wildlife trade is readily apparent in an age of shrinking biodiversity, the ivory ban was suspended because it simply was not conducive to long-term conservation. Proponents argue that lifting the ban strengthens rather than weakens the CITES regime.

CITES

The global trade in wildlife products is immense - some put it as high as US$20 billion annually. The trade includes pets, zoo animals, and plants; objects for scientific study and medicine; and body parts such as hides, horns, pelts, and claws. Demand for these products could begin to outpace supply in a short time and add to the biodiversity deficit we are currently running. A concern with the environment on an international level, perhaps most visible at the 1972 Stockholm United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, helped create the political context for the formation of CITES in 1973. The 1979 Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species and Wild Animals adds some (comparatively low-key) strength to the regime, and other institutions such as the United Nations Environmental Programme and, especially, the World Conservation Union also add support.

CITES was nicknamed the Washington Convention, not only because it was signed there but because the Americans contribute a quarter of its budget and have always been its main supporter. CITES headquarters are in Lausanne, Switzerland. Membership has grown from ten founding states to 138 in 1997. The CITFS system is based on a classification of threatened species according to one of the three appendices to the convention, each of which is a list of species that needs some sort of protection from international trade. For those species in appendix III, most of the burden for regulation falls to the signatories and is voluntary. Appendix II permits minimal trade, so long as it is 'not detrimental to the .survival of the species.' Appendix I prohibits all international trade, except for non-commercial purposes; not surprisingly, it is by far the most controversial.

As with most multilateral treaties of this sort, an opt-out clause permits states to register an objection to an appendix I listing. …