Bones of contention

It is time to challenge the basic assumption of pro-wildlife-trade arguments

Published:March 15, 2013 2:55 am

The 16th meeting of the signatories to the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok concluded yesterday. It is a trade control treaty between 177 nations that aims “to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival”.

Most Indians will find it hard to grasp the magnitude of legal trade in wildlife. We are well exposed to the illegal killings of tigers and rhinos,but we are not big buyers or sellers in the legal market. However,international decisions about legal trade in wildlife species have conservation implications that go beyond nations that want to sell or buy.

A few years ago,China showed interest in opening up domestic trade in tiger bones,a trade it had banned a decade ago. Mass breeding of tigers had continued,partly to feed a legal market for tiger skins. In 2007,CITES urged all parties not to breed tigers for trade in body parts and derivatives. China has not opened trade in tiger bones,but NGOs have put forth evidence suggesting that the farms illegally supply tiger bones to the black market,stimulating demand and therefore motivating the poaching of wild tigers.

In 1999 and 2008,some African nations were allowed by CITES to sell ivory to China and Japan as an exception to the ban on ivory trade that started in 1990. This is perhaps one of the most controversial decisions in the history of CITES. Many believe that it has resulted in creating a market and giving the illegal trade a smokescreen to operate behind,to sell illegal ivory from across the globe,including India.

Legal trade in rhino horns,which are a popular ingredient in traditional medicines in east and southeast Asia,was first proposed two decades ago,but rejected by CITES on the grounds that the problem lay with insatiable demand from importing countries. If this proposal were raised again,it would have implications for India’s rhino population. Rhinos currently face a crisis — poachers have killed 13 rhinos in Kaziranga in the first two months of 2013; South Africa lost over 600 rhinos in 2012 to poaching. The solution to the poaching problem being proposed by some is legalisation of the trade.

The issue of legalisation comes up in a predictable pattern in the lead-up to all CITES meetings. Some think tank members,scientists,government and the hunting lobbies argue that legal trade in endangered species is a solution to poaching. Their argument is that by flooding the market with wildlife products legally sourced from farms,poaching pressure on wild populations will decline. In the real world,the argument falls flat. Permits issued for farmed animals,in a set-up plagued with endemic corruption,allow traffickers to “launder” wild-caught animals as captive-bred. Examples of this are easy to find.

Attempts to stop international trade in blood diamonds is a struggle worth drawing lessons from. Nearly nine years after the certification schemes were launched,key NGOs involved have withdrawn support as the schemes “failed to deliver”. A regulated trade in high value ivory and rhino horn is likely to go the same way. Regulatory mechanisms in conflict-ridden nations cannot prevent laundering. Buyers in southeast Asian countries are not likely to move to more expensive legal options. Poachers are not likely to spare wild animals that roam the fenceless expanse.

Prominent conservationists like Iain Douglas-Hamilton,who has worked on African elephant conservation issues for many decades,believe the key to stopping poaching lies in reduced demand. Steve Galster,head of Freeland Foundation,a counter-trafficking NGO,feels that “national laws and policies need to change their focus from facilitating exploitation of natural resources to asking whether such exploitation is needed at all.”

It is time to challenge the basic presumption of the pro-trade arguments — that people will always exploit wildlife and we can only hope to regulate it. India is a great example. Despite a strong tradition of using ivory and shahtoosh,India has banned their sales. At this month’s CITES meeting,Indian delegates repeatedly pointed out how a complete ivory ban has helped the Indian elephant. While demand for wildlife items may linger,the law is clear. These laws are no different from other prohibitory laws that might never be fully realised.

Why should wild animals — many with intelligence and empathy,strong family structures and complex emotional lives — have to justify their existence by the prices their body parts can fetch as decorations,rugs and delicacies? CITES has a role to play in conserving endangered species,but its mandate is to regulate. It is now time for humanity to stop wanting.

Uttara Mendiratta and Onkuri Majumdar work for the Freeland group of anti-trafficking organisations

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