Lions and Tigers and Elephants, Oh My!

Lions and Tigers and Elephants, Oh My!

By: Staff  Date: 01/14/2012 Category: | Wildlife Journal |


The international animal protection movement oversees a broad expanse of concerns ranging from humane issues at one end of the spectrum to endangered species protection at the other. From the beginning NAIA has focused more on humane issues than on species protection. In recent years, however, as environmentalism has become a sort of state religion in Western developed countries, animal rights groups, including US-based Friends of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, have expanded their political and fundraising agendas from national humane issues to international environmental ones. At NAIA we believe this shift in focus mandates that reasonable groups like ours get involved in the global debate over preservation versus sustainable use of species; because, just as emotionally driven animal rights fundraising campaigns led to harmful animal welfare laws in the US - ones that slowed AIDS and cancer research without improving the welfare of lab animals, emotionally driven, international, preservationist campaigns now threaten to increase human hunger and poverty while promoting policies that actually destroy wildlife habitat and assure species demise.

This reality coupled with the knowledge that funds raised in one arena can be used to promote harmful animal rights goals in another, prompted NAIA to send representatives to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - CITES - held in Zimbabwe, Africa this June. Because decisions reached at CITES have enormous consequences worldwide, NAIA wanted to make certain that the US delegation heard from at least one broad-based, mainstream, pro-reason animal protection group. It is clear that US policy today is influenced by the animal rights perspective.


What is CITES?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is an international treaty established to remove commercial trade as a factor in species endangerment. It was adopted in 1973, the same year the Endangered Species Act was passed. Today 139 countries are parties to the agreement. The treaty attempts to mitigate the recurring pattern seen in developing countries where, as human populations expand and industrialize, they displace wildlife and wildlife habitat with buildings, strip malls, roads, parking lots, intensive agriculture, etc. CITES regulates commercial trade in these already weakened species as a means to slowing and hopefully, stopping their demise. The treaty covers trade in live animals as well as animal products such as hides, tusks, shells and products made from them such as belts and piano keys.

All countries assert ownership rights to the natural resources within their territories and maritime economic zones, but sometimes a natural resource - a particular plant or animal or plant or animal product or derivative - becomes so valuable, people begin stealing and trading in it. Because species recognize no national boundaries, this scenario makes international cooperation a necessary element in protecting such a species. Poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks is an example of world demand driving species demise through illegal trade. CITES protects member states from illegal trade in such designated species by a voluntary agreement among parties to only trade in one anothers' legal goods. For countries with species they wish to protect, the treaty works well, providing both the exporting and the importing countries with mechanisms for punishing violators.

CITES, in the most general terms, operates through three appendices which list animals that are considered endangered (Appendix I); threatened (Appendix II); or in need of monitoring (Appendix III). This year, the most controversial issues were the requests from three southern African elephant range states, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, to downlist their elephant populations from Appendix I to Appendix II, which would allow regulated trade by those states in elephant products.

Zimbabwe's capitol city, Harare, served as an excellent site for the 10th conference of the parties to CITES. The Zimbabwean people were awesome - friendly, optimistic, generous, and helpful. Wherever we traveled, we were greeted warmly and given help and directions in perfect English. Harare is a modern city with world class hotels, fashionable shops, glorious weather, a lively night life - and virtually no violent crime. This modern African city provided an excellent venue for the most important and definitive issues to be discussed at CITES. Africa is home not only to many of the world's most treasured and threatened wildlife populations, but also to millions of impoverished rural Africans who live with and among these wild animals but who, as they struggle to develop their countries, receive little benefit from protecting or tolerating them.

Because Zimbabwe is a range state for the African elephant, the species whose fate was the most contentious issue to be determined at CITES, the setting guaranteed well-drawn battle lines between combatants. The debate was anchored at one end by local, community-based conservation and development programs such as Zimbabwe's Communal Areas Management Programme For Indigenous Resources - CAMPFIRE; the African Resources Trust; and various pro-hunting and conservation groups such as Safari Club International. The opposition included well-funded Western animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and similar UK groups who oppose hunting on ethical grounds, regardless of whether or not hunting is part of a sustainable use and resource management program that supports the broader goals of wildlife conservation and human development.

The issue

The African Elephant was added to Appendix I as endangered continent-wide in 1989. This one-size-fits-all approach to wildlife management policy predictably caused trouble. African elephant problems vary from one locale to another and therefore, continent-wide solutions to these unique problems simply do not exist. For example, in some range states, especially where political problems, military activity or tribalism destablize regional governments, poaching is a major factor endangering elephants. In other countries, human populations, agricultural land use and urbanization have pushed elephant herds off the land. In Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, good wildlife management fostered by programs such as CAMPFIRE, coupled with strong pro-conservation government commitments has led to healthy, growing populations of elephants that ironically are threatened primarily by their own sheer numbers.

Elephants have no natural predators other than man. Without human intervention in the form of sound wildlife management practices, African elephants expand their populations from five-to-seven percent annually. Because the land has a finite carrying capacity, elephants in an expanding population literally devour and destroy their habitat, ruining it for themselves and for all other species that occupy it. After grazing down grasses, African elephants move on to woody plants and trees (a single bull elephant can destroy from three to 10 trees a day). Once those are gone, the land is reduced to desert. Without good conservation management to break the cycle through major culling initiatives, deforestation, desertification, starvation and death are nature's long-term answer to the problem.

In recent years, CITES has been criticized by its party states and others for promoting more of a rich man's animal rights' club than conservation-based trade. Critics rightly point out CITES is a voluntary trade treaty, not a treaty whereby developed countries set internal wildlife management programs for sovereign states. Specifically, developing countries complain that Western countries and Western animal rights groups have hijacked the conference; that they often overlook the scientific reports and recommendations of their own expert panels, inject their own brand of ethics into the debate, and recommend wildlife management programs that turn many species such as whales and elephants into sacred cows rather than sustainably managed marine and wildlife populations.

For these reasons it is easy to understand why the entire CITES debate this year boiled down to a contest between sustainable use of wildlife versus wildlife preservation. Sustainable use employs hunting (culling) as a method to limit overpopulation of species that, without culling will overpopulate and destroy themselves, their habitat, and the habitat of other species. The animal rights approach bases wildlife protection on ethics rather than on science and in the rather convoluted equation that emerges from this approach, supports animal life over human life - at the expense of both. This unhappy situation represents the status quo in many parts of Africa today.

The two philosophies are polar opposites and promote entirely different short- and long-term remedies: Poor rural Africans understandably want to use and benefit from their resources just as all developed countries have - and in many southern African countries they have demonstrated a willingness and a commitment to use these resources sustainably. Animal rights groups who depend on contributions from donors in developed countries, recognize that the very concept of sustainable use - a concept that envisions a human remedy as well as a human cause for species endangerment - undermines their ability to fund raise. Sustainable use advocates address the reality that animals already pushed to the brink of extinction by expanding human populations must be carefully managed by humans if they are to survive. Sustainable use philosophy maintains that to succeed, conservation management must include some form of economic benefit to the people who protect and tolerate animals who raid their crops, granaries, destroy their forests and occasionally kill their Affiliates and Friends.

Further, sustainable use methods are scientifically based while much of animal rights fundraising rhetoric depends on ignorance-based hysteria over endangered species and two other closely related beliefs: namely, that the primary cause of species extinction is human greed and that hunting is always ethically wrong. More to the point, animal rights preservationist groups, in order to fully capitalize on the endangered species issue, must convince their Western constituencies that threatened animals can not be managed (saved) locally without oversight and ethical direction from them. Sustainable use, if adopted throughout developing countries, will take animal rights groups out of the game.

A revolution in conservation

During the conference, world opinion made a revolutionary shift away from preservationist policies that turn developing countries into wildlife parks and zoos at the expense of both their human and wildlife inhabitants - and in favor of local people sustainably using, managing, conserving and benefiting from their own wildlife resources. By conference end, whether discussing South African rhinos, elephants in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, or whales in the North Sea, it was clear that the concept of sustainable use had won the debate.

The final vote on downlisting the African elephant in the three applicant states hinged on whether or not the truly endangered members of a split-listed species, (one listed by CITES as endangered in some countries and threatened in others) could be protected. Framed another way, the environmental policy question became: "Should CITES reward good wildlife managers - allow poor rural Africans to benefit from trade in elephant products for their successful conservation efforts - even though elephants are poorly managed in other countries?" The answer was a resounding "yes": the exact count was 77 votes in favor of downlisting to 22 opposed (including the US) with an abstention of 15 European Union countries who significantly had voted with the US on previous votes.

Immediately following the triumphant vote, elated Africans rose in what seemed to be a spontaneous emotional act and began singing the southern African liberation hymn. It was a jubilant and tremendously moving experience to watch as southern African delegates celebrated what they said was a victory in winning respect for their needs, their sovereignty and many years of hard work. Afterwards, glancing around the assembly hall, one could find tears in the eyes of participants from both sides of the debate - although I suspect for different reasons.


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All Authors Of This Article: | Patti Strand |
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