World wildlife talks face uphill tusk

JOHANNESBURG • The world's biggest conference on the international wildlife trade has opened with African countries lashing out at Western charities for "dictating" how they should protect their elephants.

Over the next 10 days, thousands of conservationists and top government officials will thrash out international trade regulations aimed at protecting different species. A booming illegal wildlife trade has put huge pressure on an existing treaty signed by more than 180 countries - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

And the plight of Africa's elephants, targeted for their tusks, generated fierce debate as the talks kicked off.

A recent census showed a 30 per cent decline in the savannah elephant population over seven years, and new data released by wildlife monitor Traffic on Saturday showed a "rising trend in large raw ivory shipments" in 2015.

The new data underlines "the crucial need for renewed efforts by governments meeting this week at Cites who need to redouble their efforts to bring the illegal ivory trade firmly under control", said Traffic executive director Steven Broad.

But four countries - Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa and Namibia - castigated Western-based animal charities, saying they "dictated" how African resources should be managed.

"Please leave us alone, don't just come and dictate what we should be doing," Zambian Tourism Minister Stephen Mwansa told a news conference.

Mr Fortune Charumbira, head of Zimbabwe's traditional chiefs, blasted "elitist NGOs who are coming from countries where there are no animals", describing them as "domineering".

A coalition of 29 African countries is pressing for a total halt to the ivory trade to curb poaching of elephants, but other delegates believe it would only fuel illegal trading.

Cites forbids trade in elephant ivory, but Namibia and Zimbabwe have made a proposal asking for permission to sell off stockpiles to raise funds for local communities that co-exist with the animals.

The European Union said it "will support a continuation of the ban on international trade in ivory and press for the adoption of strong measures against ivory trafficking, as well as trafficking affecting rhinoceroses, tigers, great apes, pangolins and rosewood".

Illegal trade in wildlife is valued at around US$20 billion (S$27 billion) a year, according to Cites.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'World wildlife talks face uphill tusk'. Print Edition | Subscribe