‘We can turn it around’

Illegal fishing and wildlife poaching have heightened in recent years, but John Scanlon, the world’s top wildlife official, believes the global community can halt the trend. 


The wheels are already in motion. Between 3 and 14 March, delegates from 177 governments gathered in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – the leading body for preventing wildlife trade that threatens species with extinction. They joined NGOs and businesses for what were a hugely important convention – and the first since 2010.

There was plenty to discuss. The numbers for elephant- and rhino poaching in Africa have worsened in recent years, with markets in Asia driving demand through the roof. Organised crime groups are harder to stop, adopting sophisticated methods in their hunt for valuable ivory, rhino horns and other tradable assets. In North America, controversy surrounded Canada’s hunting of polar bears. As for the seas, a study preceding the conference said that 100 million sharks were now being killed per year.

Leading the debate was John Scanlon, the CITES secretary-general, appointed to the post in 2010 after a long career in environmental law and policy, including roles in the private sector, the Australian government and the UN. Looking back, he says CITES has overseen several success stories – one being the white rhino, whose population was at 2,000 when CITES was adopted in 1971, and which now stands at 20,000. However, he believes such figures have been put at risk by the soaring wildlife hunting in the past five years. Yet in Bangkok, he said, measures were taken.


“What’s driving this is not traditional uses, but a number of new uses associated with new lifestyle choices,” Scanlon says. “There were a number of decisions taken at the conference that very directly addressed this threat, both in terms of pressing the demand for illicit trading, stricter enforcement measures, better sharing of intelligence and stricter penalties. The parties have responded very forcefully through the decisions they’ve taken in Bangkok, and we now have to implement those.”

Indeed, amid the difficulties of diplomatic negotiation, the convention did achieve notable results. The most significant was the increased protection given to oceanic whitetips, porbeagle and hammerhead sharks – three critically endangered species – despite strong opposition from China and Japan. There were to be no ban on Canada’s polar bear exports, but nations agreed on a robust restructuring of the framework surrounding rhino horn and ivory trade.

Crucially, Scanlon says, there was widespread agreement that the threats to our wildlife must be countered. Prior to the convention, he had called for the industry to adopt the techniques used to combat illicit trade in narcotics, such as asset recovery and operations to expose ‘king-pins’ – the central figures behind the traffic. At the convention, delegates agreed. “That’s a big breakthrough,” Scanlon says. “Previously, people would be happy to push wildlife crime into a corner. They’ve actually acknowledged now that this is right in the centre of a serious discussion that transcends wildlife agencies, and that must engage the wider community.”


As such, it is safe to say that the direction, and the methods to be used, were agreed upon. The next task is to effectively implement the policies. Scanlon emphasises the importance of coordinated efforts – across governments, businesses and NGOs. Reassuringly, alongside the member nations, key NGOs were present, such as the Asian and African development banks, the Global Environment Facility, the World Bank, and the UN Development Programme. As were the major enforcement agencies, such as Interpol, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Customs Organisation. But one thing is certain: it will not be easy.

“A whole lot of things will have to happen if we are to turn the trends around,” Scanlon says. “I think we can do it. We know the way. We need to express that collective will. At this meeting there was a clear expression of that and the things we need to do. Now we need to drive that all the way to the ground. That is going to involve political choices on a domestic level, deploying the right enforcement capacity, not tolerating corruption, and cooperation across multiple states.”

Scanlon also calls for travellers to do their bit. “They can make a huge difference,” he says. “Do not consume items that are going to put money into the pockets of organised crime. Be a voice. If you see things going on, report it back to the local authorities or even through your magazine. And also have an influence on your own government, in terms of how seriously they prioritise wildlife.” And should you come across ivory or rhino horns that may be illegal, his message his clear: “If you’re in any doubt, don’t buy.”

Photos: Graeme Shannon, Shane Gross [both via Shutterstock.com], CITES.

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