Is CITES working for African megafauna conservation?


29 Nov 2022

Written by Michael 't Sas-Rolfes

With some fanfare, the 19th CITES CoP ended last week. Many conservationists celebrated the fact the numerous species (including various songbirds, turtles, frogs, and sharks) had achieved new ‘trade protections’ – meaning that they are now subject to additional restrictions on international trade, as per listings on the CITES Appendices. However, unlike the previous (18th) CoP (which saw the Appendix II listing of giraffes), no additional meaningful trade restrictions were placed on any species of African megafauna.

An attempt to restrict trade in hippo products, spearheaded by a group of mostly West African countries, was defeated in a vote. SADC countries rejected the proposal, pointing out that their own hippo populations remain abundant, and are even increasing in some places. They further argued that trade restrictions would be unlikely to help their populations and could even have perverse effects by negatively impacting the livelihoods for those who benefit from current uses and trading activity. In that sense the argument between different regions of Africa followed a long-established pattern.

Countries to the north and west of Africa tend to have residual, fragmented, and highly threatened populations of mammalian megafauna (mostly due to historical human population pressure, which has driven large-scale land conversion and consequent habitat encroachment and loss). For these countries, sustainable harvesting and trade of these species does not seem like a viable proposition. They are more persuaded by the view that such species require all the legal protection they can get, even if international trade is not the principal reason for their local scarcity. This view finds sympathy with a coalition of protectionist Western NGOs (exemplified by the Species Survival Network), which have long provided financial and other support to these countries.

In contrast, countries in the SADC region tend to have larger and, in some cases, even abundant populations of megafauna, such that species like lions and elephants require management interventions to prevent human wildlife conflict in many areas. These countries have also, to varying degrees, embraced a more utilitarian approach to managing these species, devolving use rights, and enabling trade under specified conditions, an approach that they argue has worked very well for them in both economic and conservation terms.

For this reason, southern African countries brought proposals to ease trade restrictions on rhinos and elephants to CoP 19. A proposal by Namibia and Botswana to ease restrictions on live trade in white rhinos and their trophies achieved some success in that the Parties voted to allow the former, provided it took place within the historical range of the species. However, this did not extend to hunting trophies and an attempt to open international trade in rhino horn by eSwatini was resoundingly rejected by all but a group of loyal SADC countries. Despite lengthy and heated discussions, proposals to amend existing trade policy toward elephant ivory and other products made very limited progress in either direction.

How well is CITES working for African megafauna conservation? Opinions differ greatly on this question, in part because it is increasingly obvious that not all stakeholders even agree on what the purpose of the Convention is or should be. The stated objective of CITES is to ensure that international trade does not threaten endangered species, but this can be interpreted in two substantially different ways. One view holds that commercial trade in a species and its derivatives is an inherently threatening activity and should thus be restricted (or banned) by default for all rare and declining species. An alternate view holds that commercial trade provides sustainable benefits to people and conservation if it is appropriately regulated, and that trade should only be legally restricted in instances where it is obviously causing unsustainable levels of species extraction from the wild.

When it comes to African megafauna, these two different views align to more deeply held moral convictions as to whether commercial trade of live animals and their body parts is an acceptable human activity or whether it constitutes an unacceptable infringement of the rights and well-being of sentient non-human animals. In terms of CITES listings, the latter view tends to align with the more restrictive approaches advocated by the West African countries and associated protectionist Western NGOs. CITES has thus provided a political platform to promote and implement policies that may be driven at least in part by fundamentally ideological agendas.

What are the consequences for the future of CITES and for African megafauna? Is this embedded ideological conflict hampering the effectiveness of the treaty or does it result in a useful balanced outcome? With various collaborators, I have been researching these questions for the last seven years and in the months to come we intend to share the results of this work, which suggest that there is much to consider as CITES approaches its fiftieth year of existence.

Michael 't Sas-Rolfes is an AWEI Fellow and a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford