Wildlife traffickers suffered stunning setbacks in Santiago, Chile in
November when the 160-nation Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) extended its legal
reach to cover commercial timber and marine fish. Mahogany, basking and
whale sharks, and all 38 seahorse species were declared threatened
species that can be traded internationally only if the exporting
nations make scientific findings that the take is “not detrimental” to
the survival of local populations of the species.
Japan, desperately seeking to overturn the international ban on commercial whaling, failed miserably in its latest plea for CITES to endorse the trade in whale products. It won far fewer votes than at the last two CITES meetings, which take place every 30 months.
An attempt by southern African nations to set annual ivory export quotas was killed despite manipulation of the decision-making process by the CITES Secretariat. Three of the nations pressing for “sustainable use” of elephants gained one-time sales of their ivory stockpiles, but only because the 15 member nations of the European Union abstained from voting.
The remarkable victories in wildlife conservation were largely the result of years of hard work - and intense lobbying at the meeting - by a potent global coalition of environmental and animal welfare groups, the Species Survival Network (SSN), and by new, progressive leadership by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). SSN, whose 65 member organizations from 26 countries include The Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Investigation Agency, Born Free Foundation and the UK’s Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has become the leading advocate for wildlife and habitat protection in the world.
The 27-year-old treaty organization, conceived as a barrier to the exploitation of wild species that has driven many animals and plants to the brink of extinction, has evolved into a forum for bitter conflicts between conservation advocates and powerful interests promoting maximum yield of wildlife. The member nations meet every 30 months to wrangle over upgrading or downgrading degrees of protection for hundreds of species. “The CITES parties put conservation before trade at this meeting,” said Dr. Teresa Telecky, director of the wildlife trade program at The Humane Society of the US and acting executive director of SSN.
Perhaps most striking in the conservation arena has been the transformation of WWF International from an obstructionist organization into a progressive leader. In the 1980s, it was instrumental in blocking an ivory ban from consideration by CITES, in spite of a poaching crisis - 100,000 elephants annually - that cut the African elephant population in half. CITES finally put the African elephant on Appendix I in 1989, but only after US Secretary of State James Baker personally intervened to drop US opposition. Public outcry and the US reversal compelled World Wildlife Fund US, the US affiliate of WWF International, to abandon its opposition.
The dramatic change at WWF has been led by Dr. Susan Lieberman, an American biologist who took over WWF International’s wildlife program two years ago. Using her years of experience in the environmental community and as administrator of CITES issues in the US government, she has put WWF at the front in many battles to protect wildlife from the depredations of trade.
Scores of SSN and WWF activists from dozens of countries lobbied side-by-side at the CITES meeting to win wildlife protections and to defeat pro-exploitation proposals. Japan’s vote-buying strategy, which was successful in blocking protections at recent CITES meetings, failed time and again as species uplistings won the necessary two-thirds majorities.
The major battles revolved around placing new species on Appendix II, which is similar to “threatened” status under the US Endangered Species Act. CITES allows international trade in Appendix II species, but only after the exporting country fulfills a burden of proof that the taking of the animal or plant is “not detrimental” to the species’ population. An importing country must require an official “no detriment” document upon import. The highest level of protection, Appendix I, forbids commercial trade.
For two decades, the international timber industry has bitterly fought all attempts to promote sustainability in the exploitation of the world’s vast forests. The huge profits made from plundering valuable trees have turned government forestry ministries into apologists for deforestation. More than 60 percent of the world’s tropical forests have disappeared over the past century - and an estimated two percent more goes annually.
For centuries, the most valuable wood has been broadleaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), the lustrous hardwood from the tropical Americas that furnished European homes and palaces. Now mahogany is commercially extinct in Central America and much of its range in South America, except for Brazil’s Amazon wilderness. Shiploads of mahogany logs, almost all illegally taken from national parks and Indian reservations, have poured down the Amazon to the US and Europe in recent years to panel corporate offices.
When the Brazilian government tried to crack down on the illegal logging, the timber barons kept their chainsaws humming in the lawless Amazon. The situation became so desperate that the US was compelled to seize an entire shipload of Brazilian mahogany logs in Florida in October after Brazilian TV exposed a smuggling pipeline.
Brazil’s government fought the mahogany listing, but its credibility was crippled when President-Elect Lula da Silva sent a message to Santiago supporting the new protections. When he takes office in early 2003, Lula will be able to withhold export permits from plundered mahogany, compelling importing countries to reject the tainted timber.
“This vote was not just a victory for mahogany,“said Carroll Muffett, director of international programs at Defenders of Wildlife. “It is a victory for tropical forests, the indigenous peoples of Amazonia, and for CITES itself. Individual trees are so valuable that roads are often cut through virgin forest to fell and extract a single specimen. By bringing mahogany exploitation under control, CITES rules will help slow the pace of deforestation, and help prevent violent intrusions onto indigenous and protected lands where much of the remaining mahogany grows.”
The Bush administration, which promotes “Free Trade” as the paragon of all virtue, at first refused to endorse the mahogany listing proposal despite support from environmental groups and Latin American range states that have seen their forests wiped out. Instead, the White House listened to timber importers and furniture manufacturers who have gotten rich from the increasingly-rare species, which sells for $1,600 per cubic meter.
The White House panicked, however, when a scathing attack was published worldwide in the International Herald Tribune on the morning of the CITES vote. “Bush Policy Sells Amazon Treasure Down the River,” headlined the op-ed authored by E.U. Curtis Bohlen and David O. Sandalow, who served as assistant secretaries of state for the environment under (respectively) the first Bush and Clinton administrations.
“As the first Bush administration explained a decade ago, US support for an Appendix II listing is warranted precisely because it would protect the world’s mahogany supply from ‘severe threats and declines’ in a way that avoids ‘restrictive trade practices.’ By helping secure the survival of the species, CITES would help ensure manufacturers ‘access to reliable long-term sources of mahogany in the future’,” wrote Bohlen and Sandalow.
“This was a more far-sighted view - one that saw a difference between free trade and a trading free-for-all,” concluded the former State Dept. officials. “Illegal logging and unregulated international trade have left the Amazon as the last remaining refuge for the majestic and once widely dispersed mahogany. Unless new protections for mahogany are put in place now, the species may indeed be headed for extinction.”
After the parties approved the Appendix II listing by a secret ballot of 68 to 30, the US announced defensively that it had voted in favor. John Turner, the current assistant secretary of state for the environment, then stated the Bush administration’s real agenda: “It was a vote for continued trade.”
Appendix II will not stop trade in mahogany, sharks, and seahorses, but the listing will help ensure that any trade is sustainable and that illegal taking is discouraged. If the species are still plundered carelessly, they will be candidates for Appendix I at future meetings.
The ivory war continues
The bitter battle over whether to fully protect elephants from the ivory trade or to subject the huge creatures to “sustainable use” continued to rage at the CITES meeting.
The issue has dominated the past seven biennial meetings of the parties. Tens of thousands of tusks are smuggled to Japan, China, Thailand and other markets by crime syndicates, undermining efforts to protect the elephants in Africa and Asia.
Five southern African nations demanded to be allowed to sell their stockpiles of ivory to the highest bidder - Japan or China - in 2004. They were attempting to replicate the controversial decision by CITES in 1997 allowing four of the nations to export their stockpiles to Japan, which touched off a surge of poaching across Africa that continues to this day.
Most dangerously, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia sought to have annual ivory exports quotas into the distant future. That “legal” trade would encourage the massive illegal ivory trade that shattered an ill-managed CITES monitoring scheme in the 1980s and led to the 1989 CITES ivory ban.
Controversy exploded before the conference when the CITES Secretariat orchestrated a meeting of African elephant range states that produced a “consensus” supporting the ivory trade proposals. But it wasn’t a consensus at all because Kenya strongly disagreed, and 13 range states - one third of the total - were not even present at the meeting. India, which co-authored a proposal with Kenya to place all southern African elephants back on Appendix I, was barred from the meeting; Japan, the major importer of ivory, was allowed in.
China, with a dwindling population of a few hundred elephants, repeatedly spoke out against another sale of African ivory stockpiles because such exports stimulate the illegal trade. Chinese authorities have been seizing huge quantities of ivory in recent years.
In stark contrast to China’s frank admissions, Japan piously claimed “we have no illegal internal market, but an active legal market.” The claim conveniently ignores decades of incriminating evidence. Indeed, the finger of blame has pointed at Japan ever since civil wars and high-level corruption touched off the elephant poaching boom in Africa and Asia in the ‘70s. Japan has a large internal ivory market served by an ivory-carving industry that has thrived for hundreds of years. Raw ivory fetches the world’s highest price in Japan: $100 or more per pound. Organized crime syndicates (such as the Yakuza) have used their global operations to smuggle vast quantities of ivory into Japan.
At best, the Japanese carving industry has not asked closely about the provenance of ivory it buys - at worst, the industry is complicit in the poaching and smuggling. The Japanese government’s repeated failures to investigate and prosecute the importers of illegal ivory indicates high-level corruption.
Japan and the CITES Secretariat were hugely embarrassed in June when a major ivory-smuggling ring was busted. A shipment of six tons of poached African ivory destined for Japan was intercepted by Interpol and local police in Singapore.
The container full of ivory, listed on the manifest as “carved stone,” was shipped from a curio company in Malawi, a small African nation. When police raided the company’s office, they seized records indicating that 18 other six-ton shipments of “carved stone” had been shipped since 1994 from Malawi to Singapore and then on to Japan or China.
After the Singapore bust, Japan refused to cooperate in the investigation of the Yokohama merchant listed on the manifest to receive the huge ivory shipment. Ivory experts speculate the smuggling scandal may reach the top of Japan’s influential ivory-carving industry.
The Malawi-Singapore connection blew an elephant-sized hole in an illegal-ivory monitoring system set up by the CITES Secretariat and Traffic, an arm of WWF. When Traffic submitted a voluminous report on ivory trafficking in September, it omitted the six-ton Singapore confiscation. This conveniently kept Japan from being named as a major importer of illegal ivory. And Traffic did not need to look into the 14 other six-ton shipments of “carved stone” that also moved along that same pipeline to Japan.
Conflict of interest
A particularly glaring fault in the CITES Secretariat is the activity of one of its top officials, Director of Science Malan Lindique, in promoting the ivory trade. Lindique headed Namibia’s delegation for many years at CITES, fighting against ivory trade controls. The southern African nation is notorious for the mountains of poached ivory that passed through Namibia from neighboring Angola during that nation’s brutal civil war. The Unita rebel army, backed by South Africa, massacred an estimated 100,000 elephants from 1975 to 2000 to help finance the war.
For the past four years, Lindique has been on the CITES staff, still attacking the CITES ivory ban. His wife, Pauline Lindique, has replaced him as the Namibian delegate to CITES. She sharply attacked the CITES elephant protections during the Santiago meeting.
Comments Chris Tuite, director of wildlife and habitat at IFAW: “The involvement of the Secretariat in the ivory trade debate was unconscionable. To see the Director of Science sitting on the podium as deputy chair of the meeting while his wife presents an ivory trade proposal on behalf of Namibia is nothing short of appalling.”
Environmentalists have had a long-running battle with the CITES Secretariat over the administrative practices of the treaty organization. For 20 years, according to many critics, the CITES staff have favored commercial exploitation of wildlife over protection. Instead of objectively weighing science and assessing enforcement efforts, the 12-member Secretariat has repeatedly argued against the precautionary principle and ignored flagrant violations of Appendix I and Appendix II regulations.
During the ‘80s, the Secretariat vehemently opposed banning the ivory trade, despite a poaching crisis that left 100,000 carcasses strewn across the African landscape each year and the utter failure of a hopelessly weak CITES ivory monitoring system. At the 1989 CITES meeting in Switzerland, CITES Secretary-General Eugene Lapointe lobbied fiercely against the proposed Appendix I listing for the African elephant (Asian elephants were already totally protected). He even held press conferences during the meeting to subvert the proposal. Lapointe touched off outrage in leading conservation nations. An inquiry by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) led to Lapointe’s removal on grounds of malfeasance.
Unfortunately, little changed at the Secretariat after Lapointe’s firing. His replacement was a bumbling UNEP bureaucrat who allowed the CITES staff - all cronies of Lapointe - to continue their anti-protection ways.
A UNEP investigation in 1998 found significant malfeasance throughout the CITES staff, including the sale of export permits. Several top staffers were fired and the Secretary-General, a Bulgarian named Izgrev Topkov, was forced to retire. UNEP has withheld the damning report from the Standing Committee of CITES, which oversees the Secretariat, as well as the public.
However, this year the Secretariat reflected overwhelming support for CITES controls over the timber and fishing industries by endorsing the mahogany, shark, and seahorse listings.
- Craig Van Note is a veteran investigative environmental journalist.
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