No end to ivory poaching in sight as CITES ends

Angus Walker

Former ITV News Correspondent

The WWF says 25,000 elephants were killed by poachers last year Credit: David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

The conference of CITES, the international organisation that controls the trade in endangered species, ends in Bangkok today after almost two weeks of debate and decisions.

For four decades, this organisation has been the judge and jury for international wildlife law. There was an expectation that CITES would pass tough sentences on those complicit in the current wildlife crime crisis.

Poaching levels are rising fast; demand for ivory and rhino horn has exploded in booming Asian countries where people with new money want to show off with old symbols of wealth or buy traditional medicine.

However, the title of one press release I received today sums up a sense of disappointment, from some pressure groups, that an opportunity to halt the well-documented rise in poaching has been missed.

"CITES has no cure for elephant poaching: Compromise and rhetoric are killing world's elephants," came the press release from several wildlife campaign groups.

The groups accuse China, "the single country most responsible for the crisis due to its burgeoning ivory market", of refusing to concede that it is the main problem.

The conference has been held against the backdrop of a well-documented spike in poaching: 25,000 elephants and almost 700 rhinos were killed by poachers last year according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Some campaigners were saying this was a 'last chance' to save the elephant and rhino from unsustainable levels of destruction.

On the opening day, Prince William addressed delegates via a video statement and urged them to "make a difference" as he described poaching levels as "shocking".

The Thai PM also made a speech as the conference began, making her government's first public promise to end the ivory trade in Thailand.

Closing the domestic ivory market in Thailand would also block a loophole that allows illegal African ivory to be 'laundered' through Thailand. So hopes were high.

In the end, there has been no clear timetable for the Thai ban to come into force, and talk of sanctions against countries failing to enforce controls on ivory has come to nothing.

In Vietnam, where I saw for myself widespread abuse of laws banning the trade in rhino horn, the government has been warned it needs to clean up its act. A mere slap on the wrists, say many campaigners.

Sharks have been given extra protection. Latest figures suggest 100 million are being killed for their fins every year. Shark fin soup is an expensive luxury meal for many Chinese people and is traditionally served at weddings or business meetings to impress guests.

Delegates from around the world attended the CITES meeting in Bangkok Credit: ITV News

However, the shark protections are not a complete ban on the shark fin trade. A permit system is meant to be introduced, aimed at protecting five species, and the new rules don't come into force for 18 months.

The problem for CITES is the same facing any large international organisation. When you get lots of different countries under one roof, in this case 178, then you have conflicting cultures, needs and agendas. Compromise is inevitable.

Others will say that at least CITES exists; at least countries have a forum where they can send delegates and get together to discuss the issues and problems. Its existence and operation for 40 years is proof that action has been taken.

It will be two or three years before CITES meets again. By then it's estimated, based on current rates, that as many as 75,000 elephants and 2,100 rhinos will have been killed by poachers.