Why does it take people in power seemingly forever to accomplish something good for the people they serve and the wildlife they look after?
Are our leaders so concerned with taking care of their own well-being that they ignore the well-being of others until they think no one notices what they do?
Take the 2019 decision of the SADC countries to oppose the restrictions on international wildlife trade. The restrictions were approved by CITES, a UN agency dedicated to regulating international trade in endangered fauna and flora species. The restrictions included prohibitions involving ivory and rhino horn trade as well as live giraffes.
The SADC countries declared that they were going to ignore the restrictions, an action permitted by the treaty establishing CITES. The next logical and doable step, then, was to establish the much-talked-about SADC ivory and rhino horn trading mechanism. But it never materialized. Everything stopped dead in the water with the SADC declaration.
The SADC citizens’ desire for meaningful and long-term trade in wildlife products is evident in the high marks that they gave their leaders for collectively taking a protest decision against the economically damaging and environmentally unnecessary restrictions. But this praise was as welcome as it might have been premature.
As soon as CITES accepted SADC’s protest as valid, the SADC countries should have established the mechanisms and markets to sell their surplus ivory and rhino horn. They inexplicably didn’t do it. Yet, the collective value of SADC countries’ stockpiled ivory and rhino horn runs into billions of US dollars. This money could be injected into the region’s COVID-19-ravaged economies, finance anti-poaching activities and other conservation measures, and purchase COVID-19 vaccines. SADC might never have more compelling arguments for ivory and rhino horn trade than exists today with COVID-19 needs and elephant over-population problems.
But nothing is being done to seize this opportunity. Worse, the politicians who took a year to work up the courage to challenge CITES (and the international animal rights groups that fund so much of CITES’ activities) then retreated behind a curtain of silence and inaction that still blocks further action.
Perhaps by taking what appeared to be bold action the politicians and career bureaucrats thought they could have it both ways. Firstly, they could show that they were working for the benefit of their own citizens. But secondly, by not implementing their decision they could stay on the good side of the animal rights groups that have a way of paying for so many travel and financially rewarding “extras” that some corrupt cabinet ministers and senior civil servants enjoy.
Meanwhile, private sector stakeholders in the SADC wildlife economy are tired of watching the charade. They want to end the silence and inaction over the long-awaited ivory and rhino horn regional trading body. They, together with rural communities co-existing with wildlife, want somebody to do something soon. Otherwise, there is a real question of whether the people and wildlife of the SADC region can survive.
The starting point to getting action is to start choosing politicians who are committed to moving forward with something that was started nearly three years ago. That means they would be involved in establishing the SADC ivory and rhino horn trading body and the meaningful restart to trade in live elephants, giraffes and rhinos.
It is high time that every southern African country actively and conclusively settle the wild trade question. It is simple. According to Los Angeles-based Managing Director of the Ivory Education Institute, Godfrey Harris, every candidate for public office should be asked whether they support trade in wild animals, including their products such as ivory and rhino horn. Those who respond yes deserve a vote. Those who refuse to answer, want to “study” the matter further, or waffle about the “devil in the details,” should be ignored.
Hopefully, the wild trade question is going to be put to a political vote in Southern Africa soon. Like the land question, wild trade represents a major element of the SADC countries’ economies. In the case of wildlife, it is being under-utilized primarily to serve the interests of major private Western organizations.
An example of the potency of the wildlife political vote has already been shown in Botswana. President Mokgweetsi Masisi won that country’s 2019 presidential elections after having promised rural communities that wildlife hunting, including elephant hunting, would resume. Their hunting wishes had been dictatorially removed by former President Ian Khama. It was the populous rural communities that determined the outcome of the 2019 presidential elections in Botswana. Even the international community acknowledged that President Masisi clinched the presidential election on the wild trade/hunting trophy position he adopted.
True to his promise, President Masisi lifted the 2014 hunting ban in May 2019. He now has solid support of that country’s rural communities that co-exist with wildlife.
Unless the politicians of Southern Africa do something in 2021 to actively restore wild trade in their countries they will deserve to be thrown out of office. They should be replaced by those leaders who recognize the enormous value of the wildlife economy but are not currently serving the peoples’ interests.
*Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based environmental journalist who writes independently on environment and development issues in Africa.