By OATA CEO Dominic Whitmee, who previously worked on the CITES Defra team…

I’ve been to a number of CoPs in my previous job as a Defra civil servant and since joining OATA but as CITES approaches its 50th year I’m left questioning its continued contribution to conservation and sustainability. Originally established to ensure that commercial international trade didn’t negatively impact the conservation of wild animals and plants I’m beginning to wonder if the model is still achieving its mission.

Is the ever-growing number of species listed under the Convention an indication it is failing to achieve its objectives or is this ever-increasing degree of protectionism a measure of success? More is surely better, right? Well no, not if the science doesn’t back it up and the measures don’t help improve the situation for listed species. Surely delisting is a sign that measures to conserve species have worked. But it seems the fundamental shift at CITES is towards a goal of shutting down trade regardless, rather than providing a means to trade sustainably.

This CoP has left me with a sour taste. It’s not the first time I’ve felt that the science and data is taking a back seat to the power of rhetoric and cuddly toys. But this year, after some of the behaviour I’ve witnessed, I have a growing sense that CITES is no longer a mechanism to enable people and wildlife to co-exist through ensuring sustainable trade but rather it is becoming a philosophy where the control or prevention of trade is the only right way.

And that way of thinking is becoming entrenched and immovable.

It seems to be about listing for its own sake, regardless of whether that listing benefits the species, whether it benefits wider conservation or the people who live side by side and rely on wildlife to provide them with a living to feed their families. To me, what this achieves is an outcome that separate humans from the world around them, that creates a barrier between people and the wildlife they live with. Science-led conservation outcomes are no longer the objective here.

Anyone seeking to open up a debate which doesn’t align with these views is both perceived and presented as anti-conservation, anti-wildlife – the enemy of what’s good in the world.  It is clearly no longer acceptable as an observer organisation to represent the views of the people who live with wildlife, who rely on them for their livelihoods, or to seek more nuanced solutions that can also contribute to conservation and sustainable outcomes. Any language that suggests the importance of people, economies or livelihoods is unwelcome – and remember CITES is all about trade! Any association with industry or trade is inherently bad, exploitative even – regardless of the positive benefits that trade and livelihoods may offer for conservation and sustainability. To oppose greater protectionism through CITES is seen as being the enemy of the righteous. It is almost becoming a case of good vs evil (and if you haven’t got the point by now that means everyone in our industry).

Because of this, for some, a CITES CoP as a working environment is becoming a very unpleasant experience. What was once a professional space is becoming more like a soccer match or a political rally with NGOs cheering at the listing of each new species. One where presenting alternative opinions feels unwelcome. A place where you get chased around by adults dressed up as the animals under discussion.

And where stuffed toys – handed out as part of the lobbying work of deep-pocketed Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) like IFAW – sit on the desks of government representatives as they present their positions in Committee. These toys are everywhere. NGOs must spend a fortune of their supporters’ donations to have these to hand out and they invest that cash for a reason, otherwise why spend money like that? As an ex-civil servant it baffles me that government officials don’t worry that proudly displaying these lobbying giveaways while they present their country’s position could make them look as if they are being swayed by these ubiquitous freebies. In my opinion, that’s just not a good look.

Photo by IISD/ENB | Diego Noguera

Even worse is the pressure being placed on intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) such as UN FAO if its opinion differs from that of the NGOs/international charities. IGOs are independent bodies whose job is to engage ALL sides of the debate, assess the science dispassionately and present professional scientific analysis free from bias for CITES Parties to consider. It was both shocking and dispiriting to see IGOs being pressured to the point of being unable to engage properly with certain stakeholders.

 I witnessed them being presented as being front people for ‘mafia’ industries by NGOs/international charities just because the IGO didn’t agree with that particular NGO’s assessment. How can this possibly assist good conservation outcomes when campaigning groups are seeking to shut down independent organisations from simply doing their jobs by making such statements?

And it seems even governments are becoming less willing to stand by their own scientific analyses in the face of the opposition to anything but greater protectionism. The conclusion I draw is that independent scientific assessment no longer has a part to play in CITES. But it looks like abuse and offensive language and pressure does.

The opening question was whether CITES is still delivering its original mission. But my closing question might instead be what is CITES mission now and how is it being delivered? After this CoP, it no longer feels like science has a part to play and less than ever that the Parties have either. It feels more like a place where those that shout loudest and most aggressively will achieve their objectives and, at the moment, they are those opposed to any sort of wildlife trade and, at this rate, it is they who are very likely to achieve their objectives. Sadly, without balance in these debates, I fear the trade in and conservation of our wild resources is not likely to be on the winning side.