EU moves get praise from telling factions at wildlife conference

Nov 25, 2022 | CITES CoP19, Commentary, Related articles

By Tracy Keeling – The Canary

The European Union has come under fire from wildlife charities, among others, for some of its actions at the World Wildlife Conference. Not everyone is displeased with the trade bloc, however. According to attendees of a meeting at the conference on 21 November, a consultant for a trophy hunting advocacy group sang the EU’s praises.

CoP19: EU on sharks and elephants

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’s (CITES) conference of the parties (CoP19) is taking place in Panama from 14 to 25 November. CITES oversees the trade in a number of species considered at risk of extinction. Governments are making decisions at the event that will determine the fate of hundreds of species.

The EU is to some extent a kingmaker at the conference. This is because it has a 28-bloc-strong vote. In other words, the bloc can oftentimes make or break a proposal that parties – meaning governments – put forward for consideration.

The EU has supported, and indeed championed, some proposals to increase species protections at CoP19. Sharks are a prime example. But it has also opposed raising other safeguards.

The bloc failed to back a proposal from eight elephant range state countries to ensure that all live African elephants captured in the wild – such as for export to zoos – remain in-situ, meaning in Africa. Southern African countries have exported over 200 wild elephants to countries outside their natural range since 2010.

The EU put forward a counter proposal which essentially called for CITES to delay a decision on live elephant exports. The European Commission’s CITES team indicated to the Canary that its proposal gave time for:

“A dialogue among range states to harmonise the conditions for that trade and ensure it supports conservation, transparency and scientific oversight.”

Ultimately, the conference agreed a temporary moratorium on exports of live African elephants outside of their natural range while an agreement on the matter is reached, potentially at the next CoP, which the EU supported.

EU and UK oppose hippo proposal

Along with the UK, the EU also opposed a proposal to increase protections for the common hippopotamus by banning the international commercial trade in hippo products.

10 African countries proposed measures that would secure the ban, as the species has faced significant declines in its total population in recent decades. Habitat loss and illegal hunting for their ivory – i.e., their teeth – and meat are the two primary drivers of their demise.

Hippo population sizes and their declines vary in different countries, which was why some countries opposed the trade ban. Asked by the Canary about its opposition, for example, a spokesperson for the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs indicated that it had:

supported a proposal that no hippo populations of concern should be allowed to be exported for commercial purposes

The spokesperson also insisted that the UK is “supporting efforts” to tackle illegal trade in wildlife, including hippos, particularly through its commitment of over £3.2m to projects through the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) Challenge Fund.

Poached hippo ivory laundered through legal trade

The EU put forward the proposal that the UK spokesperson referred to. The European Commission told the Canary that it first requested that all range states “set sustainable export quotas” in line with their hippo population’s status. It then called for different trading rules for different hippo range countries, with a commercial trade ban only applying to the countries that proposed the ban. Europe is a major importer of hippo ivory.

The commission argued that banning trade from countries with “large populations that are stable or increasing” wasn’t “justified”. It also said that banning trade in those countries would carry “serious risks” for the conservation of hippos there because it would reduce communities’ “tolerance” of living alongside hippos. “They would lose income generated through sustainable trade”, the commission said, adding that:

we would have risked an increase in illegal poaching and that hippo habitat is converted into grazing land for cattle.

Some dispute these assertions. South African author and journalist Dr Adam Cruise has investigated the purported benefits that communities get from the wildlife trade in Namibia and Botswana, particularly in relation to trophy hunting. He described the idea that communities benefit from the hippo trade as “rubbish”, saying:

Nobody is benefiting from the trade in hippos other than those who are selling and laundering ivory.

Moreover, the countries that proposed the ban argue that the legal trade is itself driving illegal poaching. In an EUobserver article, they pointed to large discrepancies in CITES records for trade in the species. For example, Hong Kong recorded over 14,000kg more imports of hippo teeth from Uganda between 1995 and 2013 than the latter reported exporting. They warned that:

This strongly suggests that ivory from poached hippos is being laundered into legal trade.

Program coordinator of wildlife for Humane Society International (HSI) Sophie Nazeri agrees. In comments after the CoP19 votes on the matter, she said:

Although hippos live in 38 African countries, 31 of these countries have small, meaning less than 5,000, or very small, meaning less than 500. These populations are threatened by poaching for their teeth which are laundered into the legal ivory trade. Unfortunately, the Parties, especially the EU which cast its 28 votes against the proposal, have ignored the pleas of hippo range States for help and left open an avenue used by wildlife traffickers.

EU on trade in Namibia’s white rhinos

Other EU positions have raised concern among wildlife groups too, such as its partial support for reducing protections from trade for white rhinos. Namibia proposed to downlist its white rhino population from Appendix I to Appendix II so it could trade them more easily for in-situ conservation purposes and trophy hunting. The government has said that this will “enhance the conservation of the species and its habitat”.

CITES lists the species it oversees in three appendices. These listings ostensibly relate to how at risk the included species are, and the trading rules differ accordingly.

According to the International Rhino Foundation, there are around 1,200 white rhinos in Namibia. The country has had a surge in poaching in 2022, with 57 rhinos killed by October.

The EU supported Namibia’s bid to trade in live white rhinos for in-situ conservation for reintroduction programmes in Africa, but not the trophy hunting element. However, ProWildlife’s Daniela Freyer told the Canary that:

Downlisting rhinos in Namibia sends the wrong message, is unjustified and unnecessary if the true goal is indeed the transfer of live animals to conservation programmes – which is already permitted under Appendix I.

CITES also permits the trophy hunting of Appendix I species, subject to the trade meeting certain conditions.

Criticism at CoP19

Wildlife groups got the chance to raise their concerns with the EU at a stakeholder meeting at the conference on 21 November. Groups in attendance included HSI, Born Free, ProWildlife, and Fondation Franz Weber.

They commended the EU for supporting the moratorium on the trade in live elephants, but took issue with the EU’s contradictory positions on different matters, such as supporting Namibia’s in-situ proposal for trade in white rhinos and opposing countries’ in-situ proposal for trade in live elephants.

Both Born Free and ProWildlife raised concerns over a lack of transparency from the bloc, at least in relation to countries whose proposals it opposes. Fryer said:

We understand that a lack of transparency and dialogue is resulting in disappointment and frustration – especially given the fact that the EU is a main market for many species.

She further urged the EU to “apply the precautionary principle” in its decision making, as the CITES criteria for species listings demand. This means erring on the side of the animals when there is any doubt regarding their conservation status or what impact trade could have on them.

The European Commission told the Canary that is has “extensively engaged and exchanged positions” before and during CoP19, via stakeholder and regional meetings, along with “bilaterals with partner countries”. It said it had met “numerous times” with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that represent “all positions and interest relevant to CITES matters”. The commission commented:

The EU and its MS [member states] based their positions on the CITES provisions and in the best available science. We are committed to work with partner countries to find the best way to ensure species conservation.

Support from right-wing of conservation

According to South African journalist Adam Cruise, who also attended the meeting, NGOs that tend to favour pro-trade positions at CoP19 appear content with the EU’s moves. Cruise said that Marco Pani, a consultant for the trophy hunting advocacy group Conservation Force, congratulated the EU emphatically on its stance on most proposals at the meeting.

The European Commission told the Canary that it is “not responsible of [sic] the praise or criticism by stakeholders” and treats them all equally in terms of access to meetings. But Cruise argued that Pani’s praise “says it all”, as it indicates that “the pro-trade stance of the EU is in line with the thinking” of the trophy hunting advocates and the right-wing of the conservation world.

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