CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), also known as the Washington Convention, evolved from an IUCN resolution in 1963.  It is without doubt the largest and longest standing conservation and sustainable use agreement on this blighted planet of ours but has it really been of help to the fauna and flora it was set up to protect? Its latest meeting is taking place in Bangkok, Thailand now (3-15 March 2013), amongst much acrimony, horse-trading and business as usual. Vested interests, bureaucrats and NGO’s will talk millions of words, put forward swarms of new agreements but ……how much will really change and improve the lot of the non-human denizens of Planet Earth?

The governments of no less than 176 countries are signatories to its clauses and conventions but many of these countries seem unable or unwilling to stem the tide of the illegal trade in animals and plants. Much emphasis in the western media points, and rightly, to such countries as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand for serious violations of such trade rules. But many of the major breaches in the CITES conventions occur in the United States of America and countries within the European Union. 

Nobody really knows what this trade is worth but it can be measured in the billions of US dollars annually, some putting it as high as $20 billion and even higher!  It involves everything from elephant ivory to rhino horn, live primates to exotic reptiles, poison arrow frogs to endangered orchids.  Certainly many of the traders are petty smugglers moving small animals in their underwear, drugged species in secret compartments in suitcases but big money attracts big crooks and big crooks equal organized crime. These are the same kingpins that are involved in the illegal drug and armaments trade and everybody should know how well that pays. It is even rumoured that some of the most vicious terrorist groups are involved, using the proceeds to build and replenish their armouries. The media regularly features numbers killed- perhaps more than 25 000 elephant slaughtered in 2012, more than 600 rhino in the same year in South Africa and an estimated 100 million sharks each year. Consider that the price of a single Queen Alexander birdwing butterfly can fetch more than US$8000.-, a tiger penis around US$1300.- and rhino horn almost US$100 000.- a kg.

The most frequently caught, and on occasion prosecuted, tend to be the little minnows in the mighty pond of greed. Those killing the rhinos and elephant are invariably from the poverty stricken masses but their reward if successful is often the equivalent of many months hard labour in honest endeavour, if they can find work.  Occasionally a middle man is caught in the imperfect net but the really big fish, seldom. The “big men” (there are some women involved) take the cream, the middlemen the milk and the one’s that do the deeds are happy with the whey! 

Despite CITES and other conservation efforts, the elephant and rhino slaughter has recently accelerated. Vast sums of money have been spent on Operation Tiger in India but numbers of this, the largest of cats, have declined dramatically, sought for supposed medicinal properties of their bones and other parts. More and ever more animals and plants are entering the illegal trade yet the bureaucrats and organizers said to be fighting the scourge seem in many cases to be going backwards and not forwards with the fight.

So what is going wrong?  Where there is a demand there will be a supply, illegal or not. The much vaunted “war on drugs” has by and large been an abject failure, as has the war on illegal animal and plant trading for the same reason.  If there was no demand in the USA, EU, China or wherever there would be no motivation to continue the exploitation.  So, hammer the buyers at home wherever they may be, catch them, prosecute them and impose huge fines. Taking out the poachers on the savannas of Africa, or in the tropical forests of Asia and South America, is not going to stop the trade and CITES and its cohorts will continue their “long walk to extinction” along with the biota they are supposed to protect.