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CITES and the Red Queen

Sunday 10th March 2013

 CITES and the Red Queen

                                                                   Alice in CITESland


In Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” there is a famous encounter between Alice and the Red Queen in a running race. They have been running for some time, but have remained in the same place.

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"


It is an apt analogy when we look at the ongoing CITES Convention in Bangkok.


Look at a report entitled “Combating the trade in endangered species through CITES” written in 1980 by then Secretary General Peter Sand.


Some excerpts:

1. The illegal trade in furs, trophies and protected animals now has higher profit margins than the drug traffic.

2. The aim of the Convention is to establish world-wide controls over trade in endangered wildlife and wildlife products in recognition of the fact that unrestricted commercial exploitation is one of the major threats to the survival of many species.

3. The odds against success are enormous.

4. Significantly, recent Australian investigations into bird smuggling revealed connections with organized crime in the United States. When member governments began to exchange export and import documents and to compare their national trade statistics, they discovered curious discrepancies. These, in some cases, were traced back to forgeries and corruption.

5. The committee works in liaison with Interpol and the Brussels-based Customs Cooperation Council (CCC).

6. The Convention seeks to draw a clear line between illegal traffic and black markets on one side and legitimate trade in renewable natural resources on the other.

7. Not surprisingly, the decisions of the CITES Conference are taken under a considerable amount of pressure, both from private conservation groups and from economic lobby groups ranging from the luxury fur and leather industries to pet dealers, safari parks and biomedical research establishments.

8. Enforcement of the CITES Convention is improving in many countries, as can be seen by an impressive confiscation record. But a number of problems and "loopholes" remain. One of these is the level of sanctions and penalties for violation of the Convention.

9. Western Europe's official 1977 imports of raw ivory may be estimated to represent at least 10 000 dead elephants. Heavy poaching because of this good market is resulting in a rapid decline in large tusked elephants. Furthermore, this means that poachers will kill more elephants to achieve their ivory goal.

10. Contrary to industry claims, only a small fraction of crocodiles originate from "crocodile farms." Once again, Western Europe, together with Japan, is the principal market. Of the estimated two million crocodilian hides traded annually in international commerce, approximately 1.2 million (60 percent) are consumed by tanners in Western Europe: France 500 000, Italy 400 000 and the Federal Republic of Germany 250 000 (4). The European share is equally high as regards snake skins, marine turtles and other reptilian products.

11. Commercial dealers from CITES countries circumvent the Convention either by way of subsidiaries and affiliates in non-member countries or by "transit" operations through free-port areas outside the reach of national customs controls. Furthermore, under pressure from local luxury leather industries, four European countries - Federal Republic of Germany. France, Italy and Switzerland-jointly refused in 1979 to grant full CITES protection to the valuable saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), and, in the case of France and Italy, to other endangered crocodilians and marine turtles. Although the Convention's "opting-out" clause has previously been used by other member countries (e.g., for certain whale species), this was the first time global protection of a highly endangered species was virtually undermined by industrial lobbyists in importing countries.


Do you see the same problems almost a quarter century later? Do repeated terms like “the drug traffic”, “loopholes”, “circumvention”, “undermining by industrial lobbyists”, “crime cartels”, “lack of enforcement”, “working with Interpol” sound familiar?  Just substitute the names of a few countries above with China and Vietnam and you have exactly the same scenario. CITES might keep passing more and more resolutions, but lack of progress is palpable.


Through the looking glass of history, CITES remains in the same place despite much running in terms of money spent, conventions and meetings organized, motions passed and rejected. CITES could take advice from the Red Queen and maybe now run twice as fast to make a difference? 


Picture credit: http://bit.ly/YU94SN



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Posted by Pieter Kat at 13:32

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