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How Long Before CITES Crashes?


In a little over a month’s time, the CITES Standing Committee will meet for five days in Geneva.

This body is made up of regional representatives of the now 181 countries that have agreed to regulate wildlife trade using the provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The Committee[i] is meant to oversee the work of the Convention and the CITES Secretariat in the three-year periods between the conferences (known as CoPs) when those nations get together and make the major decisions regarding the Secretariat’s budget, which animals and plants will be subject to CITES controls, work programmes, trade policies, etc.

Standing Committee meetings have gradually, but ever-increasingly in recent years, got busier and busier. They have also changed from times when it was mainly just the regional representatives and Secretariat personnel who came together. These days, the events have become mini-conferences. Additionally, the Committee is so loaded down with issues that it has working groups meeting, physically and electronically, on a regular and constant basis.

The January event will be especially hectic, since CITES CoP17[ii] will be held this year, in Johannesburg, late September and into October and many matters relating to its conduct and the decisions to be taken there need to be discussed and finalized.

At the Standing Committee’s last meeting, in July 2014, 72 Parties, 14 international organizations, 56 NGOs and 11 private sector bodies – approximately 400 people in all – attended. There’s a good chance at least four to five times that many participants will turn up in South Africa.

If you look at the agenda[iii] of the forthcoming meeting, you’ll see that there are some 70 documents to be considered, spread across 62 distinct agenda items.

To be fair, some of the items will probably be dealt with very speedily. But relatively few fall into that category.

I think it is worth reflecting on some of the matters to be discussed, which the Chairman will not be able to drop his gavel down upon rapidly.

For a start, the Committee has to ponder the future of the Secretariat[iv]. Should it continue to be administered by the United Nations Environment Programme, or instead by the UN Office in Geneva, or become something of a standalone agency, but still linked to the UN? That is a decision which has very considerable implications; legal, financial, logistical, political and diplomatic. Some might think it would deserve a meeting on its own.

Eleven documents relate to finance. The CITES budget, like any other in the world (regardless of the nature or size of who or what is spending it), dictates to a significant extent what can be achieved and how successfully it can be achieved. In recent years, the budget has not really kept pace with either inflation or the expanding work programmes. This has led to a reduction in Secretariat staff. It has also meant that many activities rely on ‘external’ funding, i.e. monies from donors. Several reports, on a variety of agenda items, indicate that it has not been possible to access such funds and, consequently, either work has not taken place or it has not been conducted as extensively as was expected.

For example, apparently the money was not forthcoming to convene a CITES Ivory Enforcement Task Force.

Amazing, given the current focus on that field.

It is not long after one begins reading the meeting documents before the realization emerges that the Secretariat, or at least many members of it, must have spent a considerable part of their time reviewing reports from countries, which provide updates on matters that the Committee regards as priorities. In some cases, countries had timeously submitted detailed information. In others, the detail was not there or, not uncommonly, no report had been submitted whatsoever.

Let’s consider this in the context of a subject that is, without question, a priority for CITES – illegal trade in ivory. A central thrust in the CITES response to this has been to request those countries most affected by the issue to create National Ivory Action Plans (NIAP)[v]. Once, and if, they have done so, those countries should provide updates on implementation and the Secretariat has apparently devoted substantial time to evaluating progress. Or, to perhaps be more accurate, it has reflected upon the progress the countries report they have made.

This is a fine and important distinction to make. The Secretariat acknowledges in its document on the subject[vi] that it does not have the resources to carry out in situ verification or evaluation. Consequently, it has had, to a significant extent, to rely upon the countries’ “self-assessment”. This is, I think most people would agree, far from ideal. However, given the current lack of human and financial resources, it is difficult to identify an alternative way forward. But it does produce some interesting conclusions.

For example, the following nations are among those categorized has having ‘substantially achieved’ NIAP implementation: China; Hong Kong SAR in China; Kenya; Thailand; and Viet Nam.

“Hang on”, I hear you say, “That can’t be right because I keep seeing media reports about smuggling or illegal sales taking place in those countries.” Yes, you do. So do I. But that isn’t the point.

The point is that they have created plans and they are implementing them (or so they say). What none of us knows yet is whether the plans are having any effect. The Secretariat, to its credit, acknowledges this. It indicates one way of measuring the impact will be the analysis of the ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System) seizure data, which will be presented at CoP17. Only problem there is that the ETIS report[vii]to the Committee emphasizes that some of the key countries are reporting seizures 18 to 24 months after they occurred.

It is obvious, therefore, that constant self-assessment, monitoring and comparison will have to go on for quite some time to come. Particularly because the Committee is going to be advised that, although elephant poaching may have declined in some areas, it is still too high for natural reproduction to prevent the species heading towards extinction. And especially because ETIS analysis, albeit not in real-time, suggests that organized crime groups may be adopting different tactics in transporting contraband across borders.

But monitoring is also vital because, and there are umpteen examples of this in CITES over the years, Parties have an awful tendency, once they believe they have ‘ticked the box’, to then take their eye off the ball. For instance, it is not so very long ago that ex-colleagues and I devoted considerable effort to building capacity and encouraging political will in Nigeria, so that a many-years-long suspension could be lifted. And what happened? Nigeria (or at least some people there) shamefully stopped the hard work and we now have a situation where the nation is once again sanctioned because it seemingly cannot be bothered to create and implement a NIAP.

There are at least 25 elephant-related documents for the Committee to take account of. How carefully can they be scrutinized and meaningfully discussed in a five-day meeting?

How about rhinos? We all know the horrendous levels of criminality that species faces and its numbers are, worldwide, considerably smaller than elephants. But they apparently warrant fewer documents; only 7. And, bizarrely, not only does the Secretariat provide a report with an overview of the situation, you also have one from a separate Standing Committee working group. Plus, of course, there are reports from individual countries.

I bet the Chairman is glad his term of office will soon be over; it must be an absolute nightmare judging how much time to allocate for discussions and subsequently moving those forward to a point where some conclusions can be drawn. As an aside, he’s done a sterling job overall to date. It really is one of the most challenging and thankless positions anyone can hold in CITES.

Back in July 2014, I posed the question whether stripes had become unfashionable[viii]. I was prompted to do so because it seemed the focus had turned away from the poaching of tigers and dealing in their body parts; even though their numbers are much, much smaller than those beasts with horns and tusks. I could pose the very same question today.

The Committee has a working group examining the issue of Asian big cats. Its endeavours were meant to be helped by a questionnaire which countries were requested to complete. Twelve nations did so. Of those, only four are range States, i.e. countries where these species are still to be found in the wild. (It is debatable whether tigers still exist in one of them.) Pathetic isn’t strong enough a word to describe that response.

I regret the same phrase was among some that came to mind when reading the working group report[ix]. The group seems to have got bogged down over interpretations of decisions taken years ago and failed to reach consensus on a number of matters. One of its principle recommendations is that consultants be employed to review a range of issues and submit yet another report. A report that could not be discussed until the Standing Committee meets in 2018. Several of those issues have been addressed before; and several times before.

For goodness sake, stop this! We know what needs to be done to halt poaching and illegal trade in big cats. We have known what to do for decades. Get on and do it!

This is an example of CITES at its very worst. Country delegations will still be sitting around talking and talking when the last tiger is shot, snared or poisoned. (My apologies to those members of the working group who I am confident will share my frustration.)

If that wasn’t bad enough, I also had to wade through more than one paper describing the situation in a country which has received support from any number of agencies, time after time, and yet which seems to be so lacking in political will or genuine commitment, or more likely shackled by corruption, that the Committee will, once again, learn that no meaningful progress has been made. I am not going to name the country or reference the documents; if I had to suffer reading the thoroughly depressing reports, you can too. And it will help you understand why the Secretariat’s report on ‘Enforcement matters’[x] should be applauded for containing so many paragraphs on the subject of corruption.

I could go on and on. But I’ll try and sum up with a number of general observations and conclusions that I reached. Before doing so, I should admit that the documents were too many, and too detailed, for me to read each and every one from start to finish. I also have to be honest and say that neither could I build up the enthusiasm to plough through them all. It was not difficult, though, to spot that the majority of documents contain recommendations which will lead to additional work for the Secretariat, the Standing Committee and the CITES community as a whole. Reports indicating everything was alright and that the subject matter could now be deleted were much harder to find.

It also struck me that some of the documents offer a marvellous briefing for organized crime groups, since they name the countries that do not have the capacity to respond effectively.

I suspect, however, that the bad guys have probably already worked out for themselves where the weak spots are. If not, they clearly need to recruit better ‘kingpins’.

For what it’s worth:

  • I am so, so glad that I retired early from the CITES Secretariat.
  • The Secretariat is doing great work, under very trying circumstances. But it is being asked to do far too much. There are a huge variety of skills and experience among its personnel. I am far from convinced they are being used to best effect. (And that’s no reflection on management.)
  • The CITES Standing Committee is not the appropriate forum to discuss, determine or review strategies to combat organized wildlife crime and trafficking. And yet those feature significantly on the programme. Is it time for a CITES Enforcement Committee? Even if it were, it is unlikely sufficient funds would be available.
  • The majority of the Committee’s working groups are doing excellent work. By the way, no member of a group gets any payment for their commitment. In several cases, however, will the time subsequently spent discussing their outputs demonstrate that their contributions are sufficiently valued?
  • You cannot, simply cannot, do justice over the course of 5 days to the major issues which feature on the agenda. Everyone who turns up in Geneva on 11th January 2016 knows that. They have known it for years.
  • One recommendation to CoP17 which is missing is that the Parties to CITES need to stop and carefully consider the future. The Convention must not keep loading itself and its bodies with more and more work. Not unless substantially more funding is allocated.

There is immense dedication and enthusiasm among those connected with implementing one of the world’s most important conventions. It is not enough. Something’s got to give.

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