Why Rhino Poaching Isn’t High on the CITES Agenda

At the 66th meeting of the Standing Committee for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), in Geneva, Switzerland, from the January 11 to 15, deliberation over the plight of rhinos was brushed over in less than an hour.

Despite considerable efforts by range, transitional, and consumer states to combat rhino poaching and rhino horn trafficking, the number of rhinos killed illegally in its core range areas in southern Africa remains alarmingly high.

Namibia has experienced a spike in rhino poaching cases last year, with the death toll rising from one rhino poached annually between 2009 and 2011 to 80 in 2015.

Zimbabwe had at least 50 rhino poached in 2015, more than double the figure lost the previous year.

Mozambique’s rhinos went locally extinct in 2013, and the country is implicated as a major base for poachers and illicit smugglers who operate cross-border incursions into South Africa’s famed Kruger Park, where the majority of the world’s remaining rhinos live.

In South Africa, where most of the fatalities have taken place, there are unconfirmed reports that poaching numbers might be down for the first time in seven years. But even if the figures are confirmed (the South African Department of Environmental Affairs is expected to make an announcement of 2015’s poaching statistics next week), it’s still not good news.

Elise Daffue, founder of StopRhinoPoaching.com, says there were about 1,160 reported cases of rhino poaching last year—a dangerously high figure.

Vietnam remains the primary consumer of rhino horn where the product is sold, mainly for medicinal purposes as a panacea for a range of ailments from cancer to a hangover.

Short Shrift for Rhinos

But rhinos have seemingly warranted scant attention at this week’s meeting of the Standing Committee.

This body is made up of regional representatives of the 181 countries that have agreed to regulate wildlife trade and is meant to oversee the work of the CITES Secretariat in combating illegal trade.

But John Sellar, former Chief of Enforcement at the CITES Secretariat, says: “If you look at the agenda of the meeting, you’ll see that there are some 70 documents to be considered, spread across 62 distinct agenda items.”

“How carefully,” he asks, “can they be scrutinized and meaningfully discussed in a five-day meeting?”

Some animals, like elephants, deservedly get a lot of attention but rhinos seem to have been largely overlooked. There are only seven documents attached to rhinos compared to 25 for elephants.

The recommendations made by the CITES Standing Committee Working Group on Rhinoceroses simply “invite South Africa, Mozambique and Vietnam to provide a further progress reports detailing joint enforcement efforts, and ‘calls upon all governments and intergovernmental organizations, international aid agencies and non-governmental organizations to provide funds to implement rhinoceros conservation activities.”

The only point of real concern for the Working Group was a “recognition” that Mozambique failed to comply with its recommendations to prepare a detailed national rhinoceros action plan “within a timely manner.”

However, according to zoologist Ronald Orenstein, author of Ivory, Horn and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros Poaching Crisis, CITES has, within its framework, done everything necessary to protect rhinos.

He says “CITES’s strongest course of action is to ensure that any international trade in rhino horn remains illegal under the CITES Appendix I listing.”

Will South Africa Propose to Legalize Horn Trade?

Mark Jones, manager of programmes and wildlife policy for Born Free and a member of the working group, commended the committee chair and representative of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, Michael Sigsworth, who ensured that “fringe” elements not specifically focusing on enforcement and demand reduction were kept out of the recommendations.

Jones was alluding to speculation that the South African government will table a proposal asking CITES to legalize the trade in rhino horn at the next Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to be held in Johannesburg in September.

At the working group session, Sonja Meintjes, the South African delegate, in an effort to pave the way for a possible proposal, advocated for the term “illegal” to be inserted in front of any reference to rhino horn trade and demand reduction strategies. In other words, she is pushing for CITES to make a distinction between a legal and an illegal trade in rhino horn.

Meintjes’ submission was decisively rejected by the committee because CITES has currently deemed all trade illegal, thus making any distinction redundant.

Indications from this meeting of the Standing Committee are that most countries oppose a legal trade in rhino horn and prefer instead to encourage demand reduction programs and tougher law enforcement measures.

Besides, says Will Travers, chairperson of the Species Survival Network (SSN), which coordinates the activities of conservation, environmental, and animal protection organizations around the world, “What are the gains for a country that flies in the face of majority opinion?”

For South Africa to overturn the CITES resolution, it would need a two-thirds majority vote in it’s favour at CoP17, which, Travers says, is highly unlikely.

Travers suggests that the South African minister of environment, Edna Molewa, should not be distracted by rhino trade but rather focus South Africa’s energies on making CoP17 the most successful and effective CITES conference ever.

“There are more critical CITES-related issues on the conference agenda that needs more urgent attention,” Travers says. For example, pangolins and African grey parrots currently don’t enjoy CITES protection as rhinos do.

Adam Cruise is a senior contributor for the Conservation Action Trust, which promotes reporting on conservation and environmental issues. Follow him on Twitter.

Changing Planet

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Adam Cruise has a philosophy degree in environmental and animal ethics from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. He specializes in wildlife conservation and wildlife crime and has traveled throughout the continent documenting and commenting on the key conservation issues and crises that face the continent.