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What’s wrong with Cites?

Opinion & Analysis

A UNITED States-based cultural organisation has started asking some tough questions about what's wrong with Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) — the United Nations designated international wildlife trade regulating agency.

Nothing at all, if judged by other UN agencies; it functions efficiently, organises meetings effectively, responds to assignments quickly and keeps its member states fully informed.

So if there is nothing “wrong" with it as an organisation. Why does it draw such sharp and constant criticism from its wildlife-rich and elephant-overpopulated southern African members as well as a number of outside observers?

According to Godfrey Harris, the managing director of the Los Angeles-based Ivory Education Institute,  “the essence of the organisation’s activities has been captured by non-governmental (NGO) forces. These forces dictate what Cites does and how it does it”.

Harris continues: “The 184-member States meeting in Panama (at the 19th Cites Conference of the Parties (CoP19)) voted to create a one-shoe-size-fits-all ban on the export of live elephants. They did this at the behest of the European Union. Its delegate, representing the EU’s member States suggested making the ban ‘temporary’ — the union’s subtle way of continuing colonial-style European control of African elephant policy, while keeping the elephant over-populated States of southern Africa within the Cites family and the Western non-profit organisations, who need elephant issues to stimulate their fundraising activities, happy.”

Harris, a former US diplomat and management advisor to the late former US President Lyndon Johnson, notes that from a diplomatic perspective, the concept of a “temporary” ban was a clever ploy. “It ended the Conference floor debate relatively quickly, while giving both sides of the elephant issue space for future manoeuvring. But what may prove good for elephants on the Indian subcontinent or in the Western regions of Africa may prove totally detrimental to elephants in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and elsewhere,” he observes.

In addition, the Western interests at CoP19 forced the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) countries to lick more wounds by refusing to allow even highly-restricted international trade in stored ivory to help pay for the high costs of elephant conservation. For the West, at both government and NGO levels, it is important to make the world think that poaching is continuing to reduce elephant herds in southern Africa at a dangerous rate. It isn’t, but the issue enhances the NGOs’ money-raising capabilities.

Moreover, one of the big international non-government organisations (known within the cites orbit as the BINGOs) — Swiss-based Franz Weber Foundation (FFW) — used its financial power to help establish, fund and influence the way African countries voted at the Panama Conference of the Parties. FFW participates in `the underwriting of the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), a shell organisation that showers cash on leaders in some 30 African countries including such special operations as the Kenya Wildlife Research and Training Institute (KWRTI). The members of the AEC — in actuality a 21st century-style cover to allow a continuation of historic European colonial policies in Africa — vote as a unit to defeat the interests of other African countries, even those with well-established conservation programmes. For simplicity of control, the AEC favours one-shoe-size-fits-all decisions.

According to KWRTI: "The African countries (voted for the ‘temporary’ ban on elephant exports and the prohibition on elephant tusk sales in order to be able to)… now enter into a dialogue to find common ground on the issue." They will not — if recent experience is any guide — but the words are soothing so Western control of African wildlife policy can continue.

Harris adds: “As is the norm for Cites, nothing definitive will be decided on these issues. In particular, the ‘temporary’ ban on elephant exports will likely be continued for another indefinite period of time, and the proponents of the ban will gain their objective to the detriment of the opponents. ‘Temporary’, in short, becomes a permanent condition when it remains in place indefinitely.”

Delay, of course, is one of the favourite control mechanisms of bureaucrats. It helps ensure their jobs into the future and prevents decisions that may embarrass them. But delay is also the number one enemy of the Sadc countries. They now need to act rapidly to regain their sovereign rights to use their wildlife in ways that benefit the plants and animals, provide socio-economic development for the people who co-exist with these plants and animals, and ensure that their habitat is conserved.

But Harris laments the fact that typical of Cites over the past 10 to 12 years, yet another vital issue is postponed for later decision.

 “Issues are kicked down the road for more manipulation and persuasion, usually involving the spreading of more cash for trips, meetings, honoraria, educational courses, research and anything else that paymasters in Geneva, Paris, Brussels, London, New York and Washington can devise — all in the cause of holding everything in convenient abeyance pending another Cites meeting sometime down the same road,” he said.

This not only guarantees that both the BINGOs and the wildlife bureaucracies have lots of “concerns” and “issues” to worry about for the next several years, but allows a small group of Western nations with colonial pasts in Africa to effectively dictate wildlife policy.

“To show how corrupt Cites has become in the service of the big Western countries and the BINGOs that influence their delegations, Dr Patrick Omondi led the Kenyan delegation to CoP19, made anti-trade speeches and cast Kenya’s anti-trade votes,” said Harris. “Dr Omondi is also the director and CEO of the Kenya’s Wildlife Research and Training Institute.

This Institute had been part of the Kenyan government’s Wildlife Service (KWS). Then in July 2021 it was “de-linked”, made “private” and is currently ambiguously described “as a government independent corporate body with the core mandate to undertake wildlife research, including issuing wildlife research permits”. How is it possible for a government agency to claim it is a “private” entity, while maintaining responsibility for government activities?

“But, that is apparently exactly what the KWRTI did with its declared private sector CEO, Dr Omondi, serving as head of the Kenyan Government’s delegation to CoP19,” notes Harris. “Was this a case where an NGO actually exercised the voting privileges of a sovereign nation?”

Harris describes Omondi’s admission of being part of a private entity and yet voting on behalf of a government agency at CoP19 “nice—and yet extraordinarily revealing!”  Omondi forgot himself in an article appearing in the November 26, 2022 issue of The African Elephant. There he brazenly admitted that “WE” voted for the “temporary” elephant export ban. Who is “WE”? As the Ivory Education Institute analyses the situation,  “we" refers to Kenya.

“Given the ambiguous status of the KWRTI, the whole Kenyan wildlife operation should now be reviewed by an independent consultant expert in governmental procedures to determine the Institute’s actual connection to the Kenyan government,” said the Ivory Education Institute. “Is it fully subject to accepted public control procedures or has it been made ‘private’ in order to allow its personnel to accept NGO funds to avoid accusations of bribery?”

Harris said an independent consultant could determine if Kenyan wildlife policy is also the province of KWRT). “We know that the Institute is heavily funded by the FFW, perhaps dependent on it for its very survival,” he said. “In short and in the final analysis, could it be that the Swiss-based Franz Weber Foundation NGO is determining Kenya’s wildlife decisions?”

The Ivory Education Institute also notes that in 2019, at the previous Conference of the Parties, the same AEC-connected group of anti-trade countries decided to limit live elephant exports to in-situ conservation areas that are within the species’ natural range, “except in exceptional cases.” The EU countries pointed out before Panama that Zimbabwe and Namibia found the exception in the 2019 ban, a big enough loophole to get a few elephants sold to China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The new ban is designed to close that loophole — still temporary, mind you, but "wink-wink", everyone associated with the power structure of Cites knows how “temporary” works in the real world.

Why all this verbal hocus-pocus? Because elephants are a unique species given their size, their group dynamics and the fascination humans have with what they can do with their trunks. Each provides endless interest for those who are far, far away watching these animals on YouTube videos and Discovery Channel programmes from the comfort of their living rooms in the Western countries.

They can be amazed by everything these animals do, but never have to deal with them and their destructive nature or their importance to the rural Africans who regard elephants as an important source of protein, conservation revenue and income for socio-economic development.

“Never a group to sublimate its opinions to others, the FFW and the AEC have stated that they are ‘(c)onvinced that exports of elephants to zoos on the other side of the world have absolutely no positive impact on the protection of the species,’” said Harris. “But, sadly, their information is as faulty as their geography.”

He adds: “Since when did the UAE move ‘to the other side of the world’? Our atlases show that the country is just across the Arabian peninsula to the east of the African continent. How does money paid to acquire an elephant for display in China not have a ‘positive impact on the protection of the species’? The FFW’s economists seem as ignorant as their geographers. And finally, the FFW said it ‘welcomed and supported this decision’ of CITES. No surprise there, but it would have been nice if the FFW had been honest enough to say how much it cost them to get the anti-trade decision they wanted!”

These anti-use decisions ironically keep the poachers and illegal ivory and rhino horn trade syndicates in business. By implication, these BINGOs and their captive countries are worse than poachers. They make the Cites Secretariat, which allows them to continue having their way in its decision-making framework, look equally wrong.

  • Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based independent international award-winning environmental journalist who writes extensively on African environmental and developmental issues.


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