In recent years the importance of demand reduction campaigns has come to the fore. Certainly, well researched and designed demand reduction campaigns have the potential to trigger behaviour change in consumers and drive down their desire to purchase rare species.

But the demand reduction strategy cannot succeed without an equally important sister campaign aimed at driving down the desire to supply. In early 2015, after spending time in South Africa interviewing people from both sides of the rhino horn pro-trade/no-trade debate, I wrote that the desire to supply was the new root cause of rhino poaching.

During the pandemic, a period which saw a reduced interest in wildlife consumption in key destination countries, there were significant price drops in the value of rhino horn (not increases as it became harder to find). So, it is very interesting that a recent publication of the Wildlife Justice Commission on the rhino horn trade stated, “up to one-third of rhino horns seized globally may have originated from legal horn stockpiles”. With just a slight modification to The Salesman’s Mantra, you could say that, “Sales tricks are what you use to sell something to someone who isn’t interested in a product any longer”.

In the lead up to CITES CoP19 this desire to supply rhino horn is still firmly on the agenda. Namibia has a submission to CITES CoP19 to move the country’s white rhinos from Appendix I to Appendix II; the CITES Secretariat has recommended that this proposal be adopted.

But the fact that the desire to supply is driving biodiversity loss and the extinction crisis is not restricted to rhinos, it is in place for all trade in wild species.

Legal Trade Is Key Driver Of Extinction Crisis

Why is the unrestricted legal trade in wild species still the default when we are in an era of rapidly accelerating biodiversity loss and when 1 million species are deemed to be at risk of extinction in the coming decades?

Sadly, too many stakeholders benefit from maintaining the status quo on this legal trade and are happy to ‘kick the can down the road’ with the talk of more research being needed to understand what is causing the extinction crisis. The funding to research and conservation is pocket change compared to the trillion-dollar profits that can be squeezed out of the legal trade in wild species for a few years longer.

But let’s be honest, the 2019 IPBES report made it unequivocally clear when it confirmed that direct exploitation for trade is the most important driver of decline and extinction risk for marine species and the second most important driver for terrestrial and freshwater species.

The solutions to the extinction crisis are regulation and legislation. In addition, these need adequate funding to ensure they aren’t just regulations and legislation on paper which are never enacted, as is too often the case now.

Two recent meetings highlight why we have such a long way to go in tackling the desire to supply, firstly the WTO Trade and Environment Week 2022 and secondly a recent CITES CoP19, Global Expert Briefing.

WTO Trade and Environment Week, October 2022

The WTO Deputy Director-General Jean-Marie Paugam said in his opening remarks, “We need to act boldly and rapidly to turn trade into a fully sustainable economic activity.”

This is undoubtedly necessary. Unfortunately, his opening remarks went downhill from that point, as he continued, “The private sector is leading and is already implementing huge investments for that purpose.” Er..No. What the private sector is doing is trying to find ways to financialise protecting and restoring the natural world, after spending decades profiting from its destruction.

“Bilateral and regional agreements have shown the way.” …No evidence here either, given the lack of environmental protection written into trade agreements.

“First, and most importantly, our members are showing their determination to act against climate change and for sustainability. We are already making good progress” …Nope.

These grandiose statements don’t stand up to scrutiny, it is just too few people are scrutinising them!

Paugam went on to say, “The recently concluded Fisheries Subsidies Agreement prohibits subsidies for illegal and unregulated fishing. It is the first WTO agreement with sustainability at its core.”

This statement begs two questions:

  1. Does this statement mean that the WTO, prior to the Fisheries Subsidies Agreement, didn’t prohibit subsidies for illegal fishing? Did the WTO previously turn a blind eye to subsidies for illegal fishing?
  2. Why is the Fisheries Subsidies Agreement the first WTO agreement with sustainability at its core. With this in mind, just what has been the purpose of the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), which was established in 1994?

The WTO website states, “The CTE was set up by the 1994 Marrakesh Ministerial Decision on Trade and Environment, which essentially mandates the committee to 1) identify the relationship between trade measures and environmental measures in order to promote sustainable development and 2) make appropriate recommendations on whether any modifications of the provisions of the multilateral trading system are required. With its broad based mandate, the CTE has contributed to identifying and understanding the relationship between trade measure and environmental measures in order to promote sustainable development.”.

Although the WTO primarily acts as a regulatory framework to facilitate international trade, it formally accepts that exceptions to free trade rules are important in environment related issues. Under WTO rules additional checks and regulations are permitted in cases where trade could negatively affect the environment. Given Paugam opening statement of about the Fisheries Subsidies Agreement being the first WTO agreement with sustainability at its core, just what has the CTE being doing for the last 30 years? Because it appears to have been asleep at the wheel!

The CTE has been a permanent observer at CITES since 1997. To date there have been no disputes between WTO and CITES (well no shock there!!). If we look at the relationship between CITES and the WTO, we first need to acknowledge that it is not the role of the WTO to regulate the trade in endangered species, that is explicitly the mandate of CITES. Even with the industrial scale of the plunder of the natural world, it was only recently, in 2015, that CITES and the WTO produced a joint statement agreeing that that the well-being of economies, habitats, and societies are inextricably linked. Not that making this statement has resulted in any useful actions.

This makes it even more puzzling that Paugam singled out the CTE in his opening address, saying “the CTE carr[ies] the huge responsibility of making all this happen…The CTE is a very inspiring committee and these are very inspiring times.”

There is much that can be said about the failings of the WTO and how these failings have enabled biodiversity loss, as a result of trade, to drive the extinction crisis. But I will finish with one point. As the WTO sat next to CITES (the UNEP, CBD etc) at the Trade and Environment Week opening address, it is important to know that the WTO doesn’t list Life on Land on its page: The WTO and the Sustainable Development Goals, something Nature Needs More has reported on previously.

The grandiose statements made during the opening address seem there to maintain the illusion of progress, and to those who are scrutinising the reality, they appear delusional.

CITES CoP19, Global Expert Briefing, Hosted by ADM Capital Foundation

The second meeting which highlights just how much needs to be done to tackle the desire to supply, was a CITES CoP19 Global Expert Briefing, hosted by ADM Capital Foundation.

In the opening address, John Scanlon, who was Secretary General of CITES between 2010 and 2018 explained, “CITES is a convention of the 1970s, it reflects the approach of its time. It is focused on a very specific issue, in this case regulating international trade in wildlife to protect against over exploitation from international trade. [CITES Parties] have preferred to maintain the narrow focus of the convention.”.

He continued, “The [CITES] convention itself neither promotes or discourages trade. It is agnostic on the matter. Rather CITES regulates trade in certain species to ensure the trade is legal and not detrimental to the survival of that species…It seeks to ensure that any such international trade is sustainable…. So, what is CITES? It is both a conservation and a trade related convention. It uses trade related measure to achieve its conservation objective, namely protecting certain wildlife against overexploitation for international trade and in doing so it contributes towards achieving sustainable development”.

In recent years Scanlon has expressed in many articles the ‘narrow’ and specific focus of the CITES convention, often concluding that his belief is that it has been successful within its narrow focus.

So, lets unpick what he said.

“CITES is a convention of the 1970s, it reflects the approach of its time.” What is Scanlon saying here? Is he admitting just how old fashioned and out of date CITES is? If this is the case, why during his 8 years as Secretary General of CITES did he not invest in modernising the convention to ensure it is a convention of and for the 2020s (and beyond) and not the 1970s? Let’s remember the CITES convention has had only one, narrow, review in its nearly 50-year history back in 1994.

Setting aside how ridiculous Scanlon’s first statement is, let’s look at another: “The [CITES] convention itself neither promotes or discourages trade. It is agnostic on the matter. Rather CITES regulates trade in certain species to ensure the trade is legal and not detrimental to the survival of that species…It seeks to ensure that any such international trade is sustainable….”

Given Scanlon again stresses the ‘narrow’ objective of the convention, “regulates trade in certain species to ensure the trade is legal and not detrimental to the survival of that species…”, why has so little work been done, including over his 8 years as Secretary General, to implement modern, electronic monitoring systems? Even over the narrow mandate, Scanlon stresses, CITES has failed. How can he possibly believe CITES is a success?? Maybe the answer lies in what was said by other speakers, which amounted to, while CITES isn’t perfect, I can’t imagine where we would be if it hadn’t been there.

How is that a good enough argument to justify why the convention hasn’t been reviewed and modernised to reflect what is needed to monitor current and future trade volumes and transparency? Veterans of CITES have enabled it to remain “a convention of the 1970s” and “reflect the approach of its time”.

Nothing highlights this as strongly than the presenters on the panel, some with 30-year and 40-year histories of working with CITES, commenting that the submission calling on the standing committee to develop a methodology for producing a World Wildlife Trade Report, “caught their eye” and is “an interesting initiative”. The submission calls for the report to look at patterns of trade and how the trade is developing.

If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be frankly ridiculous that a trade convention with a narrow focus on “regulating trade in certain species to ensure the trade is legal and not detrimental to the survival of that species” has not produced any trade analytics, trade risk flags or a World Wildlife Trade Report in its 50-year history.

These statements alone highlight why the global conservation sector has failed wildlife, because of a lack of willingness and ability to challenge (covert) agendas and deal with them surgically. The extinction crisis is not occurring because of the need for more research but because of the need for good governance. If the conservation sector cannot learn to deal with business agendas, politics and power plays it will remain marginalised and ineffective in saving the natural world from the effects of unconstrained growth.

Corporate capture of the conservation sector has enabled the scale of the legal trade in wild species to remain invisible. This, in turn, has enabled industries and businesses to maintain plausible deniability on how they are driving biodiversity loss and make huge profits from their desire to supply.

In finishing, I leave you with one final example of how the legal trade in endangered species has been clinically sidestepped for over 30 years.

I recently asked someone on the WWF leadership team to explain why the WWF’s website, to this day, only quotes a figure of the value of the legal trade from the early 1990s.

How does having information 30 years out-of-date, about the legal trade in endangered species, fulfil WWF’s mantra of an evidence-based approach? Their reply “If you’ve got stats that hold more gravitas pls do send them through”.

I can’t agree that there is ANY gravitas in data that is 30 years out-of-date. The self-assured hubris among some global conservation agencies needs a bit of a reality check.

As Don Pinnock wrote recently, “The WWF has been in existence for 60 years. It is the world’s largest environmental NGO, with assets reportedly of nearly $1-billion raised from foundations, public donations, governments and corporations. It has more than five million supporters in 100 countries. Its primary stated goal is the protection of biological diversity and natural resources… After spending 60 years seemingly failing to stem biodiversity meltdown despite large funding and many programmes. Its latest report, while valid and vital in its findings, is of course also a fundraising document.”

It is time for conservation agencies to tackle both the desire to consume and the desire to supply. The first step is laying bare the current scale of the legal trade in wild species, who is making the biggest profits and what proof can they provide that they know exactly what constitutes sustainable offtake levels for the species used in their supply chains. Businesses have had decades to gather this supply chain information. If they can’t provide it, close production down until they can. No Transparency, No Trade.

From these three examples, it would appear that we had a brief moment of hope in the early 1990s with the Rio Earth Summit and the conventions and declarations that came out of that. CITES had a review, the WTO created a Committee on Trade and Environment and WWF published data on the scale of the legal trade.

After that brief blip … nothing. WWF went back to fundraising, CITES went back to listing more species without any money for monitoring and enforcement and the WTO environment committee went to sleep (presumably). Now facing a mass extinction event and imminent environmental disaster the people at the helm either continue greenwashing or creating the illusion that CITES can’t be modernised. The conservation sector needs to develop the courage to challenge business and industries or it will remain marginalised and ineffective in saving the natural world from the effects of unconstrained growth.