‘Getting Involved In Animal Disease Issues Puts Cites In Conflict With Its Core Mandate’

By Emmanuel Koro

Johannesburg, 3 March 2022

The UN international wild trade regulating agency CITES’ 11 March 2022 meeting in Lyon, France, will consider whether to recommend a worldwide ban on international wildlife trade as a way of protecting humans from animal diseases.

The Managing Director of the Los Angeles-based Ivory Education Institute, Mr Godfrey Harris believes strongly that  CITES should not involve itself in wildlife disease issues because they have nothing to do with the agency’s basic purpose – regulation of international wild trade.

“If CITES succumbs to the animal rights groups who are using animal diseases as a clever way to end all trade in wildlife products, it will be committing bureaucratic suicide by abandoning its fundamental mandate, ” said Mr Harris

The former CITES Secretary-General (1982-1990) and current President of the Switzerland-based IWMC-World Conservation Trust, Mr Eugene Lapointe has indicated that he will tell CITES Standing Committee delegates that the simple, fundamental and unavoidable truth is that any action taken by the agency to become officially involved in the prevention of zoonotic disease is unneeded and unnecessary and would be a waste of its scarce resources.

Zoonotic diseases are those transmitted from animals to human populations. The New York Times recently reported that two brand new scientific studies suggest that Covid-19 may have come from animals in a few food markets in Wuhan, China.

International experts observe that even if it’s true that the Coronavirus originally spread from animals to humans, it’s already well known that other diseases spread from animals to humans. Therefore, this new finding would not justify a worldwide ban on international trade in wildlife.

“There are those  associated with CITES who are determined to use the Covid-19 pandemic as the excuse to end CITES’ usefulness,” said Harris. “They can’t. There are too many countries and too many people who rely on the sustainable use of wildlife to allow international trading to end.”

Meanwhile, fears are mounting that the people and wildlife of Africa would be irreparably harmed if the animal rights groups use the Covid-19 pandemic as the basis for a ban on all international trade in wildlife.

Mr Harris noted, “These groups have long been thought of as fundraising machines rather than as serious public policy advocates. Their opportunistic attachment to the worldwide concern about zoonotic diseases is an example of their consistent effort to tilt the playing field in their favour. They are trying  to achieve a long sought-after goal — banning all trade in wildlife and its products — using scare tactics about future possible pandemics.”

It is a well-accepted fact that without  getting any benefits  from international wildlife trade, African people will see no reason to conserve the wildlife around them. Therefore, if CITES proceeds with this move to use animal disease as an excuse to ban international trade in wildlife it will shoulder the blame for undoing the UN-General Assembly-approved 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The UN  2030 SDGs achievement motto is that “no one should be left behind” in the grand global socio-economic development agenda. Among other objectives, the SDGs include poverty alleviation and environmental conservation (including wildlife). Yet, CITES would effectively leave African countries and their wildlife-producer communities behind if it gives in to the animal rights pressure to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to impose a needless international wildlife trade ban. A ban would literarily take away from African wildlife producer communities the revenue from international wildlife trade, the socio-economic benefits it provides in food and products, and the conservation of wildlife and habitat opportunities it offers.

“When that happens, African wildlife producer communities will see absolutely no value in wildlife,” said Mr Ishmael Chaukura of Masoka wildlife producer community of Zimbabwe, where revenue from international wild trade was used to build a school that is producing medical doctors, nurses, accountants, teachers, technicians and wildlife managers. “Therefore, our national parks and wildernesses areas will have to be converted into agricultural land. This means we will have to kill all our wildlife and clear the land to make way for agricultural production.”

Meanwhile, Mr Harris said that “if CITES continues to waste time dealing with veterinary matters that properly belong to the World Health Organization (WHO), it will be guilty of the same issue-blindness that recently afflicted the San Francisco Board of Education.”

Three members of that Board, he explained, were recently thrown out of office by more than 70% of San Francisco voters. They were removed because they stopped worrying about the education of the kids who go to San Francisco’s schools and started worrying about extraneous matters.

“Those three board members became focused on changing the names of 42 schools in the District. They said that the current names honour such historic American figures as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — all of whom, these Board members’ claimed, have questionable attitudes on slavery,” said Mr Harris.

It is hoped that the fate of the those San Francisco Board of Education members is a timely lesson for the delegates to the CITES 11 March 2022 meeting. Mr Harris suggested that a vote to involve CITES in zoonotic diseases could mean not only an end of their service in the agency’s affairs, but a likely end to the entire agency itself.

“CITES management should avoid departing from the agency’s mandate to regulate international wildlife trade. They should just do their jobs,” said Mr Harris. “After all, of the six principal words that spell out “CITES” — Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — TRADE is its middle name.”

Mr Lapointe said that “CITES needs to conserve its finances and personnel to concentrate on the very clear mission” it was given at its founding nearly 50 years ago.

“Animals provide food, fibre, livelihoods, travel, sport, companionship, and education for people throughout the world,” he said.

Dismissing the animal welfare groups’ excuse to use  animal diseases as the reason to ban international trade in wildlife, Mr Lapointe said that millions of households in the United States have one or more pets.

“Animals don’t exclusively come into contact with humans through international trade,” he has noted. “On the contrary, they come into contact in urban and rural settings, during travel, while visiting animal exhibits, or while enjoying outdoor activities.”

“CITES has more than enough it is not doing for wildlife to waste anyone’s time on getting involved in zoonotics,” said Mr Harris. “Involving CITES in disease prevention seems more an effort to give players in these organizations an ego-satisfying role in crisis management rather than a meaningful way to provide solutions to any of the issues associated with these diseases.”

CITES has been warned before that it has no business in animal-disease related issues, but some delegates and some staff members persist in getting the topic on the agenda.

“The major countries of the world involved in international trade already have the topic of zoonotic diseases well covered — especially given their ongoing efforts to identify variants arising out of the Covid-19 virus,” said Mr Harris.

“The number of officials overseeing disease transmission prevention in the health and border control agencies of these countries already far exceeds any number that CITES might want to assign to the task.”

Mr Harris said that the amount of funds spent by any of these major countries to prevent the transmission of zoonotic diseases across their international frontiers already “dwarfs any amount that CITES might muster for such activity.”

“In short, CITES needs to stay away from the topic of zoonotic diseases and get on with balancing the well-being of wildlife with the need for sustainable international trade in their products,” he said.

About the writer: Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning independent environmental journalist who writes extensively on environment and development issues in Africa.

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