Getting CITES Out of the Red

By Aaron Silberman

The headlines, for over a decade, have been almost universally bleak: “Rhino poaching in Kenya Doubled in 2013”; “Rhino poaching in South Africa at record levels following 18% rise in killings”; “Rhino poaching: another year, another grim record.”

(Image by World Wildlife Fund)

For conservationists, scientists, and uninvolved observers alike, the systemic destruction of endangered species populations has been both disheartening and difficult to combat. On top of climate change, more direct human activities, including illegal poaching and encroachment on habitat, have threatened species. All of these trends beg the question: can we actually save endangered animals? Possibly, but not without an increase in funding and some innovative thinking.

Take, for example, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES, which entered into force in 1975, creates a strict ban on the international trade of endangered animals and plants. CITES, as an organization of member countries, attempts to accomplish this goal through the regulation and monitoring of international trade. But an international organization that is run by cooperation and consensus is only as strong as the commitment of its members.

The problem, as is often the case, comes down to money: CITES is chronically underfunded. As of April 30th, only 44 out of 181 parties to the convention had paid their financial dues for the year 2016. Furthermore, as of April 30th, 93 countries that are party to the convention had unpaid dues for the years 1992 – 2015. While CITES is able to accomplish good work with the funds that it currently has, its ability to combat new and sophisticated threats is limited by the aggregate failure of its parties to provide adequate financial support. Clearly, looking at the numbers of rhinos and elephants being poached, CITES needs to step up its efforts, and, to do that, it needs more funds.

cites budget
Data for CITES Budget, 2016 from NOAA

If CITES were to receive adequate funding, it could alter its approach to use those resources to educate the public in countries that contribute most to species destruction. Rather than simply police trade bans, CITES could proactively address the problem in these countries by creating targeted educational programs in order to help reduce pollution and consumer demand for illegal products. Similar efforts have proven successful: in 2014, Vietnamese demand for rhino horn dropped 38% within the span of 14 month after a concerted educational and advertisement program was launched within the country. By fostering collaboration between businesses, universities, and women’s groups, the program succeeded in dispelling myths regarding the medicinal properties of rhino horn.

While neither increased funding nor increased education are panaceas that can solve the issue of endangered species conservation, CITES can only be as effective as it is financed. This year, when the CITES Conference of the Parties meets in Johannesburg, all Parties should pay their dues and provide the organization with the funding that it requires.

As a student of science, technology, and international affairs at Georgetown University, I intend to pursue a career in researching, formulating, and advocating for global environmental policies. It is because of this intention that I helped to establish the Working Group for International Environmental Policy, a Georgetown-based group that organized a delegation from Georgetown to attend the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in May 2016. With regularized delegations to this conference, our objective is to promote knowledge-sharing and collaboration between students, international environmental organizations, and faculty across the full spectrum of environmental policy, including climate change, resource management, and wildlife conservation.

Human Journey

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