South Africa’s Positional Play at CITES is Poor Form

Written by Dr Ross Harvey, PhD (Economics)

On 6 November 2019, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), provided feedback to interested stakeholders on the outcomes of proposals submitted to the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Meeting in Geneva in August 2019, due to tragic circumstances preventing the meeting from taking place in Sri Lanka in May, the South African delegation doggedly fought for its version of ‘sustainable use’ to be adopted, but was roundly defeated, much to its chagrin. Stakeholders in the wildlife ranching industry were at pains to moan about how ‘western’ NGOs have ‘captured CITES’, which in their view is a trade convention as opposed to a conservation convention. It might be worth reminding everybody that the very first part of the preamble to the Convention text recognises ‘that wild fauna and flora in their many beautiful and varied forms are an irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the earth which must be protected for this and the generations to come.’ Every element of the trade regime is premised on this need for protection.

Black rhino hunting

South Africa succeeded in changing the way in which the quota for black rhino trophy hunting is determined. Instead of being fixed at 5 animals per year, the number is now set at 0.5% of the total black rhino population (which apparently currently amounts to about 10 animals). If the population falls below a certain threshold level, hunting will be terminated. Most telling in this proposal is South Africa’s rationale. It treats this quota as evidence of ‘adaptive management’, which is ‘therefore precautionary’. It is adaptive, but it is not exactly clear how precautionary it is. The scientific assumptions are as follows. First, that we have real-time, accurate and reliable population data. Second, an ‘offtake’ rate of 0.5% can ‘easily’ be accommodated as the population growth rate is around 6% and the loss to poaching is, on average, only 2.2%. If these assumptions do not hold in reality, the sustainability of the quota comes into question. The precautionary element is presumably that if the population falls below a certain threshold (not yet determined), the quota will be reduced to zero. The risk, of course, is that if a population collapse occurs before the authorities can reliably establish a population count, hunting will continue. This will have an additive effect – hunting will exacerbate the drivers of decline (poaching or otherwise).

The other hidden assumption is that pseudo-hunting will be avoided through a perfect governance system, despite extensive evidence that provincial authorities are less than capable of governing against such loopholes. Pseudo-hunting became prevalent with the hunting of white rhino from about 2003 onwards, and rhino horn prices started to skyrocket. Unscrupulous hunters would apply for permits from provincial authorities with no political will or capability to pick up the obvious abuse, which was that predominantly Thai women would apply for the hunting permit but would hardly ever do the shooting. Unscrupulous traders then arranged for the horn (a legal by-product of the hunt) to be shipped out to Vietnam. Trophy hunting simply provided a loophole for rhino horn trafficking. The links with organised criminal syndicates such as the Xaysavang Network became deeply embedded. Those links spilled over into the lion bone trade, in which bones were either shipped out as a by-product of canned hunting or to feed the tiger bone market in Asia. The risk to this precarious ‘adaptive management’ approach is that it remains open to abuse. It is irrational to believe that good governance will suddenly evolve out of the ether.

SANBI argues that the trophy hunting of black rhino ‘will attribute increased economic value to black rhinos and so incentivise landowners to stock the species, thereby growing the population and increasing the species’ range.’ It is further of the view that the ‘offtake’ of ‘surplus males’ will maintain productive population growth rates. Aside from the fact that the language used by SANBI is strongly reflective of the view that rhinos are basically an agricultural product rather than a wild animal with its own interests, the logic is flawed. Interestingly, John Hume – South Africa’s largest private rhino owner – went on record recently to state that he was fully in favour of demand reduction campaigns that would drive down the price for rhino horn. He said that if that were to happen, he could go back to breeding rhinos for stocking game reserves. But all hunting does, given that the horns from hunted rhinos can easily leak into the black market, is spur the demand for horn. Hume is happy either way, except that his security costs might undermine some of his profiteering from allowing leaked horn stock to mysteriously enter the market (he claims he didn’t know anything about his errant nephew’s involvement in this scheme). The problem is that South Africa seems to want it both ways – to ‘sustainably use’ a rhino as a mere commodity and to simultaneously ensure that trophy hunting won’t increase demand for horn. Unless governance is perfect, these two objectives are irreconcilable.

Giraffe protection

SANBI offered the view that the decision (Proposal 5) to include giraffe on Appendix II was not a conservation success story. When a species needs protection, we should not celebrate. Appendix II provides some protection against trade in a species or its derivatives, normally through requiring proper export and import permits, depending on the details in any given annotation to the appendix for a particular species. South Africa laments that Proposal 5 was successful because our own giraffe populations are growing. This displays the same callous disregard for other nations that characterise decisions on elephants and lions: ‘ours are fine, so don’t punish us for your mismanagement’. The CITES treaty recognises split-listing as a serious problem, as different regulations for some sub-populations of the species may lead to problems for other sub-populations. For giraffe, the fact that South Africa’s populations are apparently healthy does not change the fact that other populations are in distress. South Africa’s response is that the factors driving their decline are not things that CITES can fix such as ‘overexploitation through illegal hunting and civil unrest.’ This is more than mildly facetious, as overexploitation through illegal hunting is exactly what CITES appendixes are designed to address. Illegal hunting occurs because there is a growing demand for giraffe products. This warrants an Appendix II listing. Keeping any giraffe on Appendix III (or unlisted) does not serve the species, as continued trade from ‘healthy’ populations simply drives up demand for the product. Transnational organised syndicates then simply ramp up their efforts to hammer populations already under threat as these are generally more accessible. South Africa then has the gall to tell its African counterparts that they shouldn’t punish South Africa for their mismanagement. That is self-righteous hypocrisy.

Jumbo fallacies

In exactly the same vein, this is what happens with elephant debates at CITES. South Africa favours split-listing, ignoring the difficulties that this creates for smaller country range-states. What may fit the category of ‘precautionary’ for South Africa perilously undermines the precautionary measures favoured by other African nations. Proposal 12 at CoP18 – to transfer the populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe from Appendix II to Appendix I (the highest level of protection against trade) – is a case in point. South Africa obviously opposed the proposal, as it does every CoP, because ‘these populations do not meet the biological criteria for inclusion in Appendix I’ and ‘the Appendix I elephant populations are performing poorly’. This is technically true, but it is disingenuous.

Appendix II-listed elephants have, by SANBI’s own admission, on average, done relatively well. SANBI puts the population figure at almost 300,000 elephants and claims that the Namibian and South African populations have ‘increased by around 40%’ (though it is not clear what dates provide the parameters for these figures). Botswana and Zimbabwe’s populations are apparently ‘stable’ and ‘elephant range has expanded by 43% overall’ (again, the date parameters are not given). Ironically, this apparent good news story has occurred while these elephant populations have been subject to an incredibly strict annotation to Appendix II, which has largely rendered them essentially Appendix-I, aside from the one-off sale permitted in 2008. Moreover, other elephant populations, such as those in the Selous, had recovered incredibly after steep decline (under Appendix I, which happened in 1989), growing from about 20,000 in 1992 to about 65,000 by 2007. Over the next 8 years, they were decimated. By mid 2014, numbers had plummeted to 14,000. Clearly, the one-off sale of 2008 affected the Selous elephants terribly. There is extensive scientific debate over whether the 2008 sale had negative overall effects. Either way, it seems more than merely correlated that the one-off sale coincided with the promotion of ivory in China as a heritage industry and growing Asian wealth, which led to the targeting of relatively easily accessible elephant populations. South Africa’s attitude tends to be, ‘well, our elephants were fine, so we’ll just ignore how our position may lead to other elephants being decimated.’

Botswana’s elephants, being of a high density, are currently subject to a growing poaching problem, and two of Zimbabwe’s elephant populations are in serious decline (according to the country’s own CITES CoP17 proposal to have the annotation to appendix II elephants removed so that a regular trade in ivory would be permitted). Therefore, it is not exactly accurate to state that Appendix II populations are doing well. Besides, split-listing ignores the migratory and shared nature of Africa’s elephants. Southern African countries tend to view elephants as property. This explains the narrative that ‘we can do whatever we like with our elephants’. But over 76% of the continent’s elephant populations share borders. If an elephant wakes up in Namibia and goes to sleep in Botswana (because it is trying to escape being hunted), then whose elephant is it? The question fails in some way now because Botswana has decided to reintroduce trophy hunting. However, split-listing creates confusion and high transaction costs for elephant conservation.

SANBI contends that Appendix I listing will not help to undermine: ‘the long cultural histories of using and trading in ivory both locally and abroad; the potential for high profits which attracts organised crime syndicates; and local governance issues coupled with inadequate law enforcement.’ This needs to be unpacked. It is scientifically clear that trade bans are useful complementary mechanisms to support demand reduction campaigns. Demand reduction is proving successful. China, for instance, has instituted an ‘ecological civilization programme’, which it supplemented with a domestic ivory trade ban in 2015. Domestic ivory sales have been outlawed since the end of 2017 now. For South Africa to assert that protection through Appendix I listing will not help to reduce demand in Asia is insulting. Protection against trade is a signalling device that supports demand reduction messaging. Declaring a desire to trade does exactly the opposite. It tells Chinese consumers to ignore the connection between ivory consumption and elephant deaths. The potential for high profits that SANBI worries about is created precisely because countries like South Africa prevaricate over whether a trade should be legally permitted. An unequivocal and collective message against trade (through stockpile destruction, for instance), would increase the riskiness of stockpiling and complement demand reduction efforts through communicating that supply is no longer available. Demand is already declining, with the raw ivory price dropping to roughly $700/kg in 2017, down from its 2014 peak of $2,200/kg. Furthermore, a legal trade would significantly increase the transaction costs for law enforcement, as they would have to try and distinguish between legal and illegal ivory. Real-time DNA-origin testing technology is not yet available in African universities, never mind at ports.

For these reasons, the last thing South Africa should be doing is supporting the notion of a legalised trade in ivory. However, it chose to support Proposal 11 at CoP18, which aimed to ‘delete obsolete text in the annotation to the Appendix II listing for the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, thereby allowing for the regulated trade in elephant products including ivory.’ The premise of the proposal was that the timeframes negotiated at CoP14 have expired insofar as the prohibition on the future sale of ivory was concerned. In other words, the 2008 one-off sale came with a moratorium on future trade that has now expired. Thus, in the eyes of these southern African nations, trade in Appendix II ivory should now be allowed, with scant regard for the plight of elephant populations elsewhere that would likely come under fire again if such a trade were allowed. South Africa does not seem to mind that if a legal trade started again, it would simply become a laundering channel for illegal ivory.

SANBI contends that ‘revenue gained through the sale of ivory will assist these countries to fund much needed conservation and livelihood programmes,’ which seems to come straight out of the Rowan Martin handbook. It seems to have conveniently forgotten that range states made very little money from the sale of ivory in 2008, whereas the Chinese government profited handsomely by drip-feeding official retailers from its stockpile. It is not clear why SANBI believes that the revenue from ivory sales would accrue to poor rural communities or be wisely invested by conservation bodies (should the money ever reach those accounts). Zimbabwe is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Cash from ivory sales would simply prop up a ZANU-PF regime that even China can allegedly no longer tolerate. And which countries would these southern African ivory peddlers trade with? The US and China have shut down their domestic markets. The underlying assumption appears to be that range states could perfectly regulate a legal trade. If an assumption is this wildly unrealistic, the proposal should be rejected, as it rightly was.

Finally, SANBI argues that it is ‘crucial that the costs of living with elephants and other wildlife do not outweigh their benefits, otherwise important elephant habitat will be lost.’ That this line of argument appears under the rationale for supporting proposal 11 means that we can assume that SANBI thinks that the benefits of elephants can be measured purely in terms of how much their ivory could be traded for. This is extraordinarily myopic for at least two reasons. First, elephants are worth more alive than dead, and a regulated ivory trade may well lead to increased elephant poaching if ivory value spiked again. Because elephants are keystone ecosystem engineers, they keep landscapes biologically functional. Biologically functional landscapes operate as carbon sinks and maintain vegetational diversity. The value of intact ecosystems is literally invaluable. With oxygen becoming an increasingly scarce resource, the world will see that even the high monetary value the IMF places on a ton of carbon is sorely inadequate. Moreover, communities are likely to derive more revenue in the long run from conservation-driven ecotourism than from any trade in ivory, especially if such a trade spiked currently dormant demand and led to increased poaching. Second, if elephant range in southern African countries ‘has expanded by 43% overall’ – without any legal ivory trade – then presumably a trade in ivory is not a necessary condition for conservation success.


South Africa’s official position pertaining to CITES decisions seems to be driven by an extraordinarily narrow reading of section 24 of the constitution – now conveniently reduced to ‘sustainable use’, ignoring the right to an ecologically sustainable environment that serves future generations. It is clear from the presentations that the underlying ideology behind South Africa’s conservation policy is that animals are only to be conserved if they pay their way in an immediate and monetizable way. This explains the dogged commitment to trophy hunting and trade in animal parts, assuming away the risks and ignoring the shaky assumptions behind its contentions. South Africa needs a new paradigm that coheres with the Constitutional Court’s judgement that welfare and conservation are intertwined values. Continuing to fight for trade in animal parts and trophy hunting, ignorant of the risks, reflects an old-school view that we should ‘use it or lose it’ – as breeder Barry York put it at the feedback meeting. This view has led to the proliferation of small, fragmented private reserves in South Africa. While this model has arguably helped rhino numbers to recover, it has also led to serious conservation management problems such as inbreeding, elephant’s migratory corridors being blocked by fences, and apex predators being targeted by ranchers breeding rare genetic varieties of impala, etc. We need a new model that takes an integrative rather than aggregative approach. In other words, each animal needs to be seen as inherently valuable rather than some ‘asset’ that can be disposed of on the altar of aggregate species conservation with shaky assumptions.


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