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Environment

African elephants, rhinos central at CITES conference

For many endangered species, the race is on control illegal trade before they go extinct. Two high-profile topics being discussed in Johannesburg involve changing the level of protection for African megafauna.

Representatives from 182 governments are currently convening at the triennial Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Johannesburg, South Africa.

CITES Secretary General John Scanlan says illegal wildlife trade is today occurring on an industrial scale, driven by transnational organized criminal groups.

The illegal trade of wildlife, worth roughly $19 billion each year, is the world's fourth largest illegal international trade - after narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.

The official logo for the CITES COP 17 meeting is a rhino, one of the most endangered mammals in Africa (Photo: DW/B. Bascomb)

CITES conference host South Africa has a concrete stake in wildlife trade

"We also have to think about it in terms of the impact on the wildlife, the animals, the plants, their ecosystems - on people, economies, security - its having a really big impact from many different perspectives," Scanlon told DW.

Poachers can be highly organized and well-armed, in some cases equipped with machine guns and helicopters to spot and kill their prey.

For many endangered species, the race is on to get control of illegal trade before they go extinct.

At the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17), which runs September 24 to October 5, 62 individual proposals are being considered. These range over nearly 500 species of flora and fauna - including silky and thresher sharks, devil rays, rosewood, lions, pangolins, crocodiles, and the African gray parrot - to name a few.

Two high profile items on the agenda involve changing the level of protection for African megafauna.

To sell or to hoard?

The kingdom of Swaziland has put forth a controversial proposal which would allow it to sell rhino horns internationally.

In Asia, rhino horn is incorrectly believed to have medicinal properties, and demand for it has driven rhino poaching to historic highs. With a kilo of horn selling for as much as $90,000 on the black market, 1,305 rhinoceros were killed 2015 in Africa.

The Swaziland government has amassed a stockpile of rhino horn worth nearly $10 million dollars. The horns were confiscated from poachers or removed from animals that died of natural causes.

Live rhino with horn removed

Horn can be relatively painlessly removed from live rhinoceros

This horn was also harvested from living animals - since rhino horn is made of keratin like human nails or hair, it can be similarly removed. The Swazi government says profits from the sale would be earmarked for protecting the kingdom's remaining rhinos.

Drawing a line of legality

Swaziland's neighbor, South Africa, will be watching with keen interest to see how the proposal unfolds. South Africa is home to 80 percent of the world's remaining rhinos.

Earlier this year, private rhino owners successfully sued the government to allow the domestic sale of horn, which had been banned since 2009.

That ruling is being appealed - and in the meantime, the ban is back in place. Pelham Jones, Chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association, is hoping that CITES will approve Swaziland's proposal.

"Sell a currently worthless stockpile and turn it into revenue that can be brought back to rhino conservation," he says.

Pelham Jones in Johannesburg (Photo: DW/B. Bascomb)

Jones is among private rhino owners in favor of legalizing horn trade so it can be harvested from live animals and sold

It's extremely unlikely, however, that Swaziland will get the two-thirds majority of votes necessary to approve its request. Sabri Zain, director of policy for the organization Traffic, says Swaziland's proposal has many flaws.

"It doesn't prescribe control measures to be sure that legal horn isn't laundered into the illegal trade," Zain told DW. "It doesn't identify a buyer country, and it doesn't identify what benefit such a sale would bring to the rhinos in Swaziland," he adds.

"We think it's not worth the risk," Zain concludes.

Listing versus action

African elephants are also a hot topic at CITES. A report published at the start of the conference by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found an unprecedented 30 percent decline in elephant populations from 2007 to 2014.

Only South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana have stable or increasing elephant herds. These countries, along with Zimbabwe, currently list their elephants under CITES Appendix 2, which allows trade but with some restrictions. 

Namibia and Zimbabwe are jointly proposing to change the way their elephants are listed, in order to make it easier for them to sell ivory.

South African Environment Minister Edna Molewa supports the proposal. She says these southern Africa countries have more elephants than the habitat can sustainably support.

The goal, she says, is to "manage these populations of ours in a manner that will bring sustainability for vegetation and getting the needed funding to pay for conservation functions." 

In a counter-proposal, a coalition of 13 other African nations wants to move all African elephants to Appendix 1, which would prohibit any ivory sale.

Zain worries that both proposals are a distraction from the real issue with elephants. "The real focus of this meeting should be what's happening on the ground to improve anti-poaching efforts and help reduce demand for ivory in consumer countries."

"If all the countries in the conference place energy on addressing those huge issues, I think we will accomplish much more for the conservation of elephants than just debating if it should be on one list or another."

Pragmatic approaches

CITES Secretary General John Scanlon, South Africa Environment Minister Edna Molewa, and UN Environment Program Executive Director Eric Solheim hold a press conference at the conference in Johannesburg, South Africa (Photo: DW/B. Bascomb)

Scanlon, left, believes progress stemming illegal wildlife trade has been made

CITES countries are looking at several pragmatic approaches to combating wildlife crime. These include translocating animals to safer areas, DNA testing and forensic analysis of seized products, and sanctions against non-compliant countries.

CITES Secretary General John Scanlan says progress has been made. "We've made a significant shift in the way the international community views wildlife crime - it's not a parking offense anymore."

"We are helping countries deploy tools and techniques to combat it," Scanlan concluded.

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