Can Multilateral Efforts Save Threatened Wildlife?

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Wild Life
Courtesy of Doran / Flickr

This article was originally published by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) on 22 September 2016.

Dozens of wildlife species are endangered, pushed ever closer to extinction by habitat loss and illegal trade. This is an important and disquieting element of the so-called Anthropocene, the proposed geological epoch to describe the current period, in which the earth and its complex systems have been fundamentally shaped by human activity. The illegal wildlife trade, which has been estimated at $7 billion to $23 billion a year, is the world’s fourth-largest form of transnational organized crime.

This has generated a typical global collective-action problem: wilderness landscapes should be preserved because they function both as carbon sinks and wildlife preserves, but conserving biodiversity requires unified action from actors whose interests may not be fully aligned. Many remaining high-biodiversity areas exist in developing countries, where their preservation entails high opportunity costs. Development priorities—the need to provide food, housing, jobs, and a better life to large and growing populations—compete for political and geographic space with natural landscapes.

Some economists have theorized that a type of “environmental Kuznets curve” exists between destruction and income growth: ecological destruction rises with economic growth up to the point at which societies can afford to shift away from environmentally destructive modes of production and consumption. Some developing countries argue it is only fair for them to follow this trajectory until they reach higher growth levels given wealthier countries’ past disregard for the environment in favor of their own growth and industrialization. Perhaps even more telling, much of the ecological degradation in developing countries can be linked to the consumption patterns of wealthy nations.

This path is socially and environmentally unaffordable. This degradation-income relationship must be curtailed by new development models that view human development and the health of ecosystems as mutually reinforcing or, at least, compatible objectives, rather than a zero-sum game. Fortunately, new technologies and development paradigms are taking shape. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed to last year as the core global development priorities through 2030, explicitly link human development to the health of natural systems, and address issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, terrestrial ecosystems, and the health of the oceans.

Much remains to be done. At the heart of this problem is that the global system of national accounts values natural capital inadequately in spite of the centrality of ecosystem services to human welfare. Natural capital tends to be treated as a free good. For instance, the opportunity costs and negative consequences of clearing a forest do not appear in the income statement of the logging company responsible. Also, trees need to be holistically valued for their non-market functions, such as erosion benefits, carbon sequestration, and spiritual value. There are also governance weaknesses: global institutions do not apply a rights-based approach to conservation or improve the management capacity required to curb threats to environmental preservation.

Frameworks for Global Governance of Biodiversity Preservation

Importantly for biodiversity preservation, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) convened its World Conservation Congress (WCC) in early September. The congress, convened every four years, was an opportunity not just to outline the future work plan of the IUCN, but to shape its policy agenda, navigating difficult trade-offs between ecological preservation and human development. Governments, multilateral agencies, civil society organizations, and corporations, among others, attempted to establish a platform for the implementation of the SDGs, to implement climate change commitments from the UN’s 2015 Paris agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2011–2020), and the associated Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Illegal Wildlife Trade

The WCC deliberations will inform the upcoming Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in late September. CITES, an international agreement between 182 member states that limits trade in wild animals and plants to ensure species survival, is the premier multilateral framework for addressing the illegal wildlife trade. For instance, on September 10, WCC member countries voted overwhelmingly in favour of calling for the closure of all domestic ivory markets. A similar resolution has been submitted to CITES. The next CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17), hosted by South Africa, will include debates about what levels of protection should be allocated to numerous threatened species. Protection levels are based on whether specific species are listed on either Appendix I or II. Appendix I affords the highest level of protection. International trade in Appendix I–listed species is prohibited. Appendix II–listed species can be traded under specific conditions, and the CITES Secretariat decides whether those conditions are met. Deciding which list species should be placed on can be a contentious process that depends as much on politics as on science. The debate over elephant conservation elucidates this difficulty, and helps demonstrate both how CITES could function better and what could be done to reconcile conflicting positions.

Elephants and Ivory

In 1989 a majority of CITES member states decided to place all elephant populations on Appendix I (even then, African member countries differed on whether this move was desirable), effectively prohibiting international trade in elephant ivory. Elephant populations initially appeared to recover after the ban began to be enforced in 1990, but over the last decade, the illegal killing of elephants has reached an alarming rate. This is mostly driven by expanding consumer demand in East Asia. This year, at CoP17, most states will likely agree that the ban on the international ivory trade should remain in place. However, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe have said that the sale of ivory should be permitted in order to finance conservation activities and fight poaching. At the heart of this controversy is the question of how the ban, or the potential legalization of trade, will impact ivory prices and poaching activity. While a number of analysts are convinced that the 1989 ban pushed the ivory trade underground, the price nevertheless collapsed and poaching appeared to decline as a result. The drop in poaching was, however, geographically differentiated: elephant populations were decimated in many western, central, and eastern African states from 2006 on, while they recovered in southern Africa. As a result, a group of southern African countries appealed to CITES to have their elephants downgraded to Appendix II, which would allow limited, controlled trade. They were successful in this endeavor, and CITES permitted two once-off sales, one in 1999 and one in 2008. The moratorium on sales after the 2008 one for Appendix II–listed elephants is due to expire in 2017.

The 2008 sale appears to be correlated with a marked, discontinuous rise in the recorded number of illegally killed elephants. However, correlation is not causation, and statisticians, conservationists, and wildlife economists are at odds over how to interpret the impact of the sales. Advocates of the ivory trade contend that the 2007 announcement of a nine-year moratorium on future sales (which went into effect after the one-off sale in 2008) created an expectation of scarcity. This expectation allegedly precipitated a price hike, which in turn created a poaching crisis. But this argument is weak, given that the moratorium was in place for only a short period and only applied to four countries’ elephants. Opponents of the ivory trade argue that the sales sent a signal to the market that ivory is a legitimate purchase, which, they suggest, explains the subsequent poaching crisis.

International Elephant Ivory Politics

Regardless of the impact of the one-off sales, proponents struggle to address a number of problems with proposals for the legal ivory trade. No one can reliably forecast what effect future trade might have on elephant populations given the sheer lack of market data on prices. The precautionary principle, therefore, cautions against permitting trade. Besides, the United States has all but shut down its domestic ivory trade, and China and Hong Kong publicly committed to doing the same.

Nonetheless, the three southern African nations that have proposed to amend the resolution (10.10 of CoP16) that was meant to establish a decision-making mechanism (DMM) for trade in ivory—Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—have stated that unless such a mechanism is created, the trade in Appendix II–listed elephants should be allowed under certain conditions. Namibia and Zimbabwe have also proposed to have their elephants removed from the listings altogether so that they can trade ivory in open auctions. This would portend a risky outcome for elephants. Politically, the proposals can be interpreted as a response to the African Elephant Coalition, a group of twenty-nine African states that has proposed that all elephants be uniformly listed on Appendix I and all DMM discussions on trade be abandoned.

Policy Lessons

If CITES is to remain relevant as a multilateral regulatory agency, member states and the secretariat will need to put more effort into reconciling the conflicting norms and values of member states. Ultimately, there is a collective-action problem: some southern African nations perceive that conservation objectives are best served by generating revenue from a regulated global trade in ivory, but their northern neighbors recognize that actions that will likely increase demand for ivory and, therefore, incentives for poaching are not worth the risk. Even well-resourced conservation entities are no match against the sophistication of poaching syndicates—a lesson South Africa is learning in its losing battle against rhino poaching.

The ivory trade illustrates how political dynamics reflect different domestic values and competing interests. It also shows the divergent views on which options are best for wildlife conservation. However, it is crucial to emphasize that the global debate on conservation and the protection of endangered species should never be reduced to high-profile species such as elephants, rhinos, and tigers. The illegal wildlife trade spans a panoply of species, including reptiles, birds, plants, and marine life. Moreover, habitat destruction is a larger driver of species loss than the illegal wildlife trade, and climate change will result in further biodiversity loss.

Several multilateral frameworks and initiatives aim to address these problems. Some of the most important (e.g. the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change, SDGs, CITES, the WCC, and the CBD) have been mentioned here, but there are others. For example, the Rio+20 summit outcome document, “The Future We Want,” presents the UN Development Program’s Biodiversity and Ecosystems Global Framework for 2012 to 2020. While CITES is crucial to conserving threatened species, it alone cannot combat illegal wildlife trade; cooperation and integration across initiatives and institutions at multiple governance levels is required. Ultimately, these frameworks all speak to the choices that must be made at the multilateral, regional, and local levels to support models of development that allow space for both human development and the preservation of the natural systems on which humans rely. Gaining traction requires institutional design that ensures congruence between conservation objectives and materially orientated development aspirations.

About the Authors

Romy Chevallier and Ross Harvey are senior researchers on the Governance of Africa’s Resources Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). This article was first published in the Council of Councils Global Memos brief

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