It's a jungle out there

As talks to protect endangered species begin in Bangkok, the schism in the global wildlife debate is exposed.

By John Vidal
Published September 30, 2004 1:59PM (EDT)

Last week President Bush held up a rifle at his ranch and declared that he was a conservationist. The man who wants to open the Arctic to oil companies and who has ripped up more than a hundred environmental protection laws was unapologetic. "There's a big difference between conservationists and preservationists," he said. "Conservationists care. And we take action."

The gun clubs, fur trappers, turkey shooters and elk stalkers of America loved it. The president, they said, had claimed the high ground from the feared and hated animal welfare and environment groups -- the preservationists -- but he was also implicitly backing governments and industries wanting an end to animal protection.

Bush had highlighted a schism in the global wildlife debate between those who say that endangered wildlife is best protected when it is traded "sustainably" and those who argue that international trade neither helps people nor protects species. The divisions will be exposed next week in Bangkok, Thailand, at the annual meeting of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Officials from more than 160 countries, representatives of more than 500 pressure groups and up to 10,000 observers will meet to debate whether to add some 100 plant and animal species to the 34,000 already listed.

Illegal wildlife trafficking, with an estimated value of some 2.5 billion pounds a year, is a massive industry. But while decisions on how to police this are theoretically made on the basis of science and rational debate, the reality is that dirty tricks, the political manipulation of poor countries by rich ones, widespread lobbying and downright corruption actually decide which species get protection and which trades are allowed to continue.

The two-week meeting will see ritual battles over ivory exports and minke whales, and more protection will probably be given to great apes, some sharks, yellow-crested cockatoos, irawaddy dolphins and some snails and turtles. "Trade has been the foremost factor in the decimation of scores of species ranging from tigers to cod," says Richard Leakey, who, as head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, has fought for years against the ivory trade. He deplores southern African countries' attempts to reopen it.

He argues that even a limited version of the trade would damage wildlife and encourage poaching and would not relieve poverty. "Sustainable use" arguments, he says, sound reasonable but there is a big difference between ecological and economic sustainability. He believes that economic priorities will always take precedence.

He is backed by groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the RSPCA, Wildaid, Greenpeace, the World Society for the Protection of Animals and Born Free, all with large memberships and the resources to lobby governments. More than 70 will work together in Bangkok in a global coalition known as the Species Survival Network.

"There is more and more frustration within nongovernment groups about the sustainability argument," says Barbara Maas, chief executive of Care for the Wild International. "The idea that it helps people is fashionable, but it doesn't stand up. It does not do anything for biodiversity or species." Care for the Wild this week published a report showing that income from southern African ivory sales is not enough to help communities.

But the pro-traders are also campaigning aggressively. In Bangkok, government officials from China, Norway, Japan and South Africa will link with business groups, coalitions of free traders, political libertarians and the exotic pet trade to protect their trade.

Better organized and funded than before, the pro-trade groups increasingly use sustainability arguments and attack the precautionary principles that give CITES the legal basis to take action to protect species, even when there is doubt about their status. "It's hand-to-hand warfare," said one CITES observer this week. "No one dares offend China, the U.S. is becoming more and more pro-trade and Britain is following. The pro-traders mostly know that they are talking rubbish, but there are a lot of clever, charismatic, well-connected people among them who can do a lot of damage."

There is arguably no other international meeting that is so open to corruption or lobbying. With each country having only one secret vote for each proposal, and many having no interest in most of the species being debated, countries line up behind their diplomatic friends, or may be persuaded by anything from a good lunch to a brown paper envelope.

The pro-traders say the protectionists are dominant. "CITES is being hijacked by animal protectors. It is dominated by them," says Eugene Lapointe, former director of CITES and now head of the IWMC -- the World Conservation Trust -- and a leading lobbyist for sustainable use of wild animals. "Countries are being forced to take positions which are contrary to their own national interests. The dogma of protectionism is so powerful. These [protection] groups have billions of dollars for propaganda. CITES is now being used as a tool, which is very unfortunate. It is being contaminated by inappropriate lobbying and pressure."

Lapointe, a French Canadian lawyer, was fired from CITES in 1989 after he was found campaigning against a ban on the ivory trade, but later received a settlement after the U.N. found that his dismissal was "arbitrary and capricious."

He now employs five former CITES officials and advises Japan, Norway, China, Canada, "two small European countries" and many industries on how to legally avoid animal trade legislation. "I tell industry, 'Wake up. You're being attacked,'" he says. He accuses animal and environmental campaigners of trying to destroy fishing and other industries and using species just to raise money. "Organizations like Greenpeace have given birth to groups like the Environmental Investigation Agency and Wildaid. Each increases the necessity for more protection. We don't have the money like them," he says. He admits that he has been at the forefront of resistance to eliminate the secret ballot in CITES. This, he says, is needed "to protect the sovereignty of small states under undue pressure from bigger trading companies."

The protection groups accuse the pro-traders of buying votes and hiding behind the secret ballot. A few years ago, Japan was found to have been buying the votes of small Caribbean countries with the promise of financial aid in return for the sabotage of protection measures at the International Whaling Commission meeting.

"This now extends into CITES," says Peter Pueschel, formerly of Greenpeace and now of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "There was one secret vote at the last meeting and you could see 20 Japanese men suddenly sit next to the delegates of certain countries, making sure they voted the right way. Vote buying clearly goes on."

But Pueschel says IFAW will be paying for some individuals from poor countries to get to Bangkok. "They have no voting rights, but they will be on delegations. They are not necessarily even on our side. We believe that some central African countries are underrepresented. So we have been helping Togo, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The countries would come anyway, but sometimes there are key people, like directors of national parks, who need to go." He adds: "A lot of people are blindly hooked up to the arguments of the pro-traders. People have not had the facts." But Lapointe is confident that his arguments are winning. "Immediately after the meeting I shall engage in the practical implementation of a sustainable use project," he says. "Moose hunting."

(How CITES works: CITES regulates only the international trade in animals. It has no power to make countries protect domestic species. Species are listed on one of three appendixes according to the perceived threat. They can be up or downgraded only at international meetings with the agreement of 50 percent of the group's 165 members.)

John Vidal

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