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The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species

Friends of Animals has long worked to get outright prohibitions, rather than merely regulating the trade in nonhuman animals, through CITES. Indeed, the 1989 CITES ban on international trade in ivory was drafted by Friends of Animals. Friends of Animals found government sponsors for that draft, and campaigned in more than 100 countries for votes in support of a prohibition. In 2002, the world witnessed the dismantling of the prohibition and a move back to the old ways of regulating this hideous trade.

CITES held the 12th Conference of the Parties in Santiago, Chile in early November, 2002. By decisions that hinged on only three votes, CITES has authorized the governments of Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia to sell a total of about 60 tons of government-owned ivory stocks — most likely to Japan. Undermining a worldwide agreement which had banned the trade in elephant ivory for over a decade, the ivory dealers won an allowance for a single sale of stockpiled ivory after May 2004, when various controls are expected to be in place. They did not get the "annual quotas" they had requested — that is, the permission to sell a certain amount of ivory year after year. Demands from Zimbabwe and Zambia to sell ivory were rejected outright. Nevertheless, the "one-time" sale of stockpiled ivory for three countries will undoubtedly encourage Asian ivory dealers, and it also offers smugglers a new and legal loophole through which they might distribute their ill-gotten gains. Elephant poaching, already on the increase, can be expected to intensify, and there will be more violence as gun battles continue between park rangers and poaching gangs in the months ahead.

The United States government bears responsibility for this debacle. After thirteen years of consistently opposing the elephant ivory trade, the U.S. delegation has now abetted the ivory dealers by casting U.S. votes in support of the South African and Namibian proposals. The U.S. delegation kept its change of policy secret under wraps until the last moment — and then announced it as a gesture in furtherance of "transparency."

Far from transparency, voting by secret ballot, as is the practice at the CITES, ensures a cloak of secrecy. We do know that the Europeans abstained from voting. Italy and Spain were among the countries whose delegates played a decisive role in withholding critical European votes that would have thwarted the sale of ivory. Thus, a divided European Union shares responsibility with the United States for the outcome.

A daunting array of pro-ivory delegations from southern Africa and Asia, supported by a number of Caribbean delegations, backed renewed trade in ivory as a means of providing revenues that would feed hungry people, provide health care for the needy and, ironically, help with conservation of elephants. In reality it is not the needy or the hungry but the Asian ivory merchants who stand to gain the most from the trade. But invoking the hungry and the needy is a traditional method of excusing all manner of animal abuse. Many are the young children who hear that the suffering of a bull in a bullfight, for example, is justified because the meat from the dying bull will feed the hungry. Such arguments present us with a false choice: they assume we must agree to abuse animals or let hungry people starve. The concept is patently absurd.

It is interesting to note that, over the days before the main meeting, the CITES Secretariat arranged a special meeting for elephant range states. Employing the "divide and conquer" tactic, the ancillary meeting excluded range states of the Asian elephant, although India co-sponsored, along with Kenya, a proposal to extend full CITES Appendix I protection to all African elephants. And although India was excluded, Japan and the U.S. were present because they donated the money to conduct the meeting.

The convention divided African delegations into "sub-regions." Thus the Mali delegation of West Africa could not liaise with the Kenyans of East Africa. After the presentations ended and the negotiations of terms began, the translators were dismissed. Unable to understand the English-speaking negotiators, the French-speaking Africans walked out in protest. The Kenyan delegation vehemently protested the procedures; nevertheless, the CITES Secretariat circulated a report that the meeting had achieved a "consensus" on terms that would guide renewed trade in elephant ivory.

Other results at CITES

Japan's bid to get CITES approval for renewed commercial whaling was beached by two decisive votes. CITES also voted for a "zero quota" on Black Sea dolphins — thus forbidding hunting of animals who have been exploited for decades to supply dolphinaria. This vote obstructs Russia's dolphin catching business, although it does so only from the conservation perspective which sees dolphins as an imperilled resource — not as beings with inherent and individual worth.

A British proposal to authorize the sale of sea turtle meat and shell from the Cayman Turtle Farm failed; additionally, the yellow-naped parrot, the yellow-headed parrot and the blue-headed macaw all moved to CITES Appendix I, a listing which prohibits all commercial trade in particularly rare animals. CITES voted to wrap big-leaf mahogany within the regulatory red tape of its Appendix II, acknowledging that tropical forests, including areas with big-leaf mahogany, provide critical necessities of life for many animals.

From an animal rights point of view, the 2002 CITES meeting clearly displayed the inherent problem with a convention founded on the conception of animals as resources for human beings. Animal use industries, represented by groups such as the Safari Club International, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, the Africa Resources Trust, and the Sharkfin and Marine Products Association, send representatives to the CITES meeting, as did the Center for Elephant Conservation, representing the interests of the Ringling Brothers circus and the Global Guardian Trust, an agency which promotes the Japanese whaling industry. Conservation Force, a safari hunting group, and others attended to promote the interests of animal traders. It comes as no surprise that exploitation interests would don the mantle of animal conservation.

CITES is scheduled to meet again in late 2004, in Thailand. As 2004 is an election year in the U.S., some might hope that, just maybe, the Bush administration'sposition on trade in elephant ivory will become an election issue. Yet from an animal rights point of view, the recent CITES meeting has clearly displayed the inherent problem with a convention founded on the conception of animals as resources for human beings.