Protecting elephants, manatees and polar bears: the elusive commodity of international cooperation
24th February 2013
On the 3rd of March the international body established to manage trade in endangered species (CITES) will meet in Bangkok, in line with its 3 year political cycle. The fate of many species including elephants, manatees and polar bears is on the agenda and Governments around the world are now firming up their positions to accept or reject proposals to give each of the species greater levels of international protection.
CITES is one of the five biodiversity conventions complemented by another that conserves migratory species (CMS), another on wetlands and on World Heritage and the high profile convention on biological diversity. The intent is that there should be ‘synergy’ and ‘cooperation’ between each convention. In the main their objectives complement each other. The Secretariats for each have developed various accords about ‘sharing information’ and working towards ‘common goals’, but in reality each body operates as an island in a sea of political confusion. Cooperation is an elusive commodity in international wildlife politics.
Perhaps that can be excused where the subject is as ambiguous as ‘defining when a representative sample of temperate ecosystem fungi is adequately protected’. It should be simple when the subject is an easily visible animal, with quite clear threats impacting it’s future. It should be even more straightforward when only two conventions really need to pay attention – CITES and CMS.
So much is shared between CMS and CITES. Each convention focuses on protecting wild animals and each has clear and complementary objectives– CITES on reducing the threat of trade to specific species and CMS on reducing other threats and protecting habitats – simple. Each has their headquarters in Europe making regular communication a simple matter. There are 109 Governments who are Parties to both conventions, which is 92 percent of CMS’s total Parties and 62 percent of CITES’s total Parties. Yet a ‘disconnect’ exists between the two.
First it must be said that Governments are inconsistent in the way they approach CMS and CITES. Their decisions often contradict or undermine what they have set out to achieve in one or the other, such as over elephants in Africa. When Governments are operating through CMS they consider elephants as regional populations (even species) and take steps to progress regionally specific measures to reduce threats and protect elephant habitat, recognising that in some parts of Africa these habitats have shrunk to such a extent that many elephant populations are facing extinction. When the same Governments approach CITES they take the position that elephants across Africa are one species and that the only threat they face is illegal trade in ivory. Moreover they force international decision making over elephants to be focused through CITES, so that habitat loss becomes a second tier issue. It is a frustrating conundrum that from the outside seems so obvious – why not require that each body works together on the ‘two halves of the whole’?
But the disconnect stems from within as well. In 2008 West African manatees were determined by CMS’s Parties to be endangered (CMS Appendix I) by unanimous consent. The acknowledged manatee experts- the IUCN Sirenian Specialist Group – had made the case that habitat loss, destructive fishing techniques, local hunting and illegal sub-regional trade of manatee as bushmeat are imperilling the future of this gentle species. Manatees are a tropical species that live in and around mangroves and estuaries in a heavily populated sub-region of Africa that struggling under some of the most difficult political and economic conditions anywhere in the world. Most of the Governments in the manatee’s region have done their level best to change their national law to match what they agreed to do through CMS. They even created a specific regional agreement and action plan for manatees, and through this determined they wanted CITES to also ban international trade of the animals to help them strengthen their national laws. It seems so obvious that the world community should support such a request. However, as we approach the CITES meeting, the CITES Secretariat itself has argued against the proposal on the grounds that the science isn’t solid enough and the trade not “international” enough. The Secretariat has recommended that the proposal be rejected.
The problem extends to CITES assessments of species in the polar north as well. For the past decade the acknowledged scientific experts on polar bear – the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group – have been blowing a warning siren that many polar bear populations face extinction, as major parts of the Arctic ecosystem succumb to the impact of global warming. Indeed, polar bears have become the symbol of climate change, but the pressure on the species is made worse because some populations are still hunted for commercial trade. In 2011 the CMS Scientific Council advised that there was a strong case for CMS to determine polar bears as endangered, and during the subsequent political meeting, which echoed with scientific alarm about the extent that climate change is already impacting many migratory species around the world, CMS Parties agreed to consider polar bear for listing as endangered by CMS at its next meeting in 2014. Yet the CITES Secretariat’s advice about the same tenor of proposal put, by the Unites States of America, to CITES is that such a measure would be ‘disproportionate to the anticipated risk to the species at this time’. Again, the CITES Secretariat has recommended that the proposal be rejected.
In both cases the CITES Secretariat will defend is position by looking to the fine detail and definitions of the convention, but as they do so they are missing the bigger picture. Governments have been agitating for years that the international environmental governance system has become too complex, that there is too much duplication in some areas with too much disconnect in others. Without doubt, this is their own responsibility as the architects and decision makers for every international legal process that exists today. However, there is also a case to be made that as ever more complex science and management discussions have developed in the past 30 years, Governments now need some simple cooperative solutions to be brought forward by the professional bodies that service the five biodiversity conventions. Obvious and seemingly deliberate disconnects between the biodiversity conventions do nothing to benefit our collective imperative to protect the fractions of the planet’s ecosystems and wildlife that we have left. Let us hope that sense prevails and by the time we are casting our eyes in CMS’s direction in late 2014 that we won’t have a similarly bleak analysis to report. For now, cooperation still seems an elusive commodity in international wildlife politics.
Margi Prideaux, is the Policy and Negotiations Director for Wild Migration.
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