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The wild animals within the borders of South Africa are part of the heritage of every South African and we have the right to demand that our government protects wild animals against exploitation and to demand accountability from government as to what it does in this regard. Government is empowered by a cogent body of laws to perform this function and it is obliged to do so by international treaties. It is urgently necessary for government to comply with its responsibilities not only because of the ethical, moral and legal compunction to do so but also because the export of our wild animals for the financial gain of a few has become big business.

South Africa has become the largest exporter of live wild animals to Asia, where many wild animals are killed to extract potions from their carcases and are eaten as delicacies. Some are sent to languish in atrocious zoos. Some are inserted into the murky world of the illegal wildlife trade. The reality is that the South African government fails to apply its strong regulatory powers and by design or neglect allows strikingly large numbers of animals to be exported.

The EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading, both NGOs, have investigated the export of a large sample of wild animals to China and their findings are set out in the Breaking Point Report which is hereby released. 

The legal trade with China is extensive, with glaring violations overlooked by authorities and benefits flowing to a few wealthy traders. The legal trade also acts as a cover for illicit trade. CITES legal wildlife trade monitoring systems contain extensive loopholes, gaps and opportunities to launder illegal items into the legal market.

This report is the second instalment of the Extinction Business series. The first report exposed the criminality embedded in South Africa’s legal captive lion breeding industry and the lion bone trade. This report, which is based on investigations in China, open source research and information obtained from governmental and non-governmental sources, hones in on South Africa’s ‘legal trade’ in live wild animals with China. ‘Legal trade’ refers to trade and export which are purportedly conducted through official channels to distinguish it from the illegal movement of animals across international borders. It shows that South Africa’s ‘legal trade’ with China is riddled with irregularities. The Report found that, between 2015 and 2019, 32 wild species from South Africa were exported to China. It lists 15 exporters and 41 importers, finding questionable listed information and permit violations in many cases. Of particular concern was the export of chimps and tigers listed in terms of the 

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or ‘CITES’ (not indigenous to South Africa), cheetahs, rhinos, lions, caracal, monkeys, giraffes and non-listed species such as wild dogs, hyenas and meerkats.

South Africa’s international live wildlife trade, says the report, is ‘large, poorly enforced, indefensible and shameful.’ The Report calls for a prohibition of the international commercial legal trade and sale of wildlife and their body parts and a precautionary and compassionate approach in relation to wildlife. The NGOs call for bans on the live trade of wild animals, including captive breeding and farming of wildlife for trade. They recommend the crafting of a comprehensive Global Agreement, ‘as a matter of extreme urgency, to tackle the dangerous, inhumane and indiscriminate trade in wild animals.’

 Key points of the report show that:

  • Oversight by CITES is so lax it’s almost non-existent. As a result, wild animals are being subjected to cruel and degrading conditions when captured, bred, transported, displayed in Chinese ‘theme parks’ or used in scientific experiments. Their welfare is being ignored.
  • The commonly held belief and one conveniently relied on by the pro-wildlife trade advocates, including CITES, is that only the ILLEGAL wildlife trade that is the problem. This report shows that massive damage is in fact caused by the LEGAL wildlife trade.  
  • The idea of ‘well-regulated’ markets is a myth, a smokescreen behind which deeply embedded interests exploit wild animals for purely commercial gain.
  • The CITES permitting system is not only riddled with loopholes but is fatally flawed, unworkable and often  acts as a cover for  illegal activities as it only imposes SOME restrictions (and even those are full of ambiguities). 
  • The legal wildlife trade – and therefore CITES – is not protecting wild animals but hastening their demise and causing enormous suffering.
  • As a result, CITES as an organisation is no longer fit for purpose and should be replaced.
  • The international wildlife trade and the captive breeding and farming of wild animals has nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with commercialisation, commodification and profit.   
  • The international wildlife trade and the captive breeding and farming of wild animals for trade is dangerous because it is increasing opportunities for zoonotic spillover.  
  • COVID-19 has provided humanity with a window of opportunity to do things differently and this must include the way we interact with other species.
  • CITES must be replaced with a completely different international preventative and precautionary legally binding agreement that establishes universal adherence to, and implementation of, a comprehensive and complete ban on the wildlife trade. This must be done as a matter of extreme urgency to tackle the dangerous, inhumane and indiscriminate trade in wild animals. Such an agreement would replace CITES and have as its fundamental guiding principle that the trade in wild animals is inappropriate, counter-productive, unethical and fundamentally unsustainable.

The permitting system is the backbone of CITES but the report says South Africa’s live wildlife trade with China clearly shows that the legal wildlife trade is riddled with irregularities and gaping loopholes. These include:

  • Illegal shipments masquerading as legal exports of wildlife species classified as threatened by extinction (Appendix I) and endangered (Appendix II) by CITES.
  • Brokering and wholesale companies and zoos implicated in the trafficking of wild-caught CITES Appendix I-listed species.
  • Export permits frequently list fake or untraceable destinations. 
  • Enforcement negligence.
  • Absent verification measures. 
  • Lack of transparency and access to permits.
  • The origin of any given animal is almost impossible and once animals leave South Africa and it is similarly impossible to identify where they end up. 
  • Most export permits are in breach of CITES regulations. CITES import permits are often not signed or dated.
  • The source of so-called captive-bred animals is not checked or properly verified.
  • DNA tests are rarely done.

Also see the investigation by Carte Blanche at: https://m-net.dstv.com/show/carte-blanche/videos/coming-up-on-17-may-the-wildlife-export-trade/video

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