August 22, 2011. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) met in Geneva, Switzerland, last week to tackle the decline of endangered species. Poaching of tigers and Asian big cats, and illegal trade of rhino horn and ivory were among the numerous challenges that the some 300 CITES government and civil society experts are facing. In the wake of this UN backed meeting, several new reports had shown a direct connection between the rising living standards in South East and East Asia, particularly China, and the increased demand for body parts of endangered species such as tigers, rhinos, and elephants.
China joined the international CITES agreement in 1981 and has since implemented significant domestic measures to ensure the conservation of wild fauna and flora. The country’s rapid economic development and the resulting increase of consumption, however, put enormous pressure on its natural resource capacity. Given the acceleration of urbanization and industrialization, China’s ecological footprint (see 2010 WWF report) is expanding steadily and is projected to continue growing. The country’s ecological deficit has created new challenges for the conservation of nature and wildlife. With China looking beyond its borders for natural resources, wildlife in other nations is increasingly put at risk.
“With Chinese investment and human presence in resource extraction operations across Africa skyrocketing, demand for ivory will overwhelm the ability of range states to conserve their elephants from poaching gangs connected to Chinese ivory buyers, often in collusion with corrupt government officials.” This is what the Environmental Investigation Agency predicted in a report from 2007 entitled “How China’s illegal ivory trade is causing a 21st century African elephant disaster”. Indeed, the levels of elephant poaching in Africa have risen sharply since last year, particularly in Central Africa. In this context, a report recently released by the nongovernmental organization Elephant Family found that the number of ivory products in Guangzhou, Southern China, has increased by 50% since 2004, most of them traded illegally. Edmund Martin, co-author of the report, calls on the Chinese government to strengthen laws and tighten controls with regards to ivory sales. “The illegal ivory mentioned in the report is largely being smuggled from Africa”, he said.
Growing wealth in East and South East Asian countries, predominantly Vietnam and China, also has a negative impact on illegal rhino horn trade. During the first six months of 2011, a total of 174 rhinos were killed in South Africa, which is a drastic increase in a country that managed to reduce poaching significantly between 2000 and 2007. Rhino horns have been used in traditional Asian medicines to treat fevers, rheumatism and even cancer; however, no scientific proof of healing capacities has been found. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCN) expert Lixin Huang, false belief surrounding rhino horn “shows little respect for the TCM profession and medical practices”. Yet, a story in TIME magazine published in June revealed that several Chinese corporations including Chinese delegates have made plans to “farm rhinos” for their horn, ignoring the prohibition of trading rhino horn for medicinal purposes by CITES law.
Similarly, China has resumed trade in tigers and other Asian big cats. “Although appeals by religious leaders and targeted outreach campaigns have reduced demand from the Tibetan community, without law enforcement operations targeting the criminals profiting from the trade, trafficking in Asian big cat skins and parts into China has continued via the same routes”, a report of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) says. According to traders, the primary buyers of tiger skins are principally the mainland Chinese business elite, officials and the military. TRAFFIC, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network founded by WWF and IUCN, recently reported that, on average, a minimum of 104 tigers per year have been traded between 2000 and 2010, with China, India and Nepal estimated to account for the majority of them.
While the Chinese government, with the support of global NGOs such as WWF, has stepped up efforts in recent years to improve wildlife conservation, weak law enforcement, insufficient decentralization and widespread corruption continue to undermine efforts to protect endangered species.
One of the outcomes of CITES last week’s meeting is the launch of a technical trust for the implementation of an African Elephant Action Plan to enhance law enforcement capacity. “Innovative financial solutions are required to achieve the huge conservation task before us,” said CITES Secretary-General John E. Scanlon. “With nearly seven billion people consuming biodiversity every day in the form of medicines, food, clothes, furniture, perfumes or luxury goods, a robust CITES is more relevant and needed today than ever.”