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Destroying Nature in the Name of Dubious Art Taste and Medicinal Superstition

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The 61st meeting of the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) concluded in Geneva on 19 August 2011 with important decisions made to ensure the survival of elephants, rhinoceroses, and other species. Such a move comes after numerous reports confirmed that these species are quickly vanishing as consumers in the Far East grow wealthier and buy expensive sculptures and jewellery made of carved ivory to show their social status, or buy potions containing powdered rhinoceros horns believed to have medicinal effects. The reports also illustrate the brutal torture of elephants and rhinoceroses to remove tusks and horns, leaving them severely maimed for life or, in most cases, dead after hours or days of agonising pain. Furthermore, as a consequence of growing without their adult parents, younger elephants and rhinoceroses have been reported to grow mentally unstable leading to developing violent behaviour towards other animals and humans.

CITES also announced that a multi-donor technical trust for the implementation of an African Elephant Action Plan was launched this week after full consultation and all formalities were concluded early in the year. The Netherlands, Germany, and France have already contributed to the new fund while other potential donors have been encouraged to donate. The target is to raise USD 100 million over the next three years to enhance law enforcement capacity and secure the long term survival of African elephant populations.

The Committee considered recent findings concerning African and Asian elephants, poaching levels, and illegal trade in ivory in a closed session. Its members discussed a public report prepared by the CITES programme for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), IUCN and TRAFFIC indicating that 2010 had seen the highest levels of elephant poaching since 2002, with Central Africa being of highest concern. The analysis has also found that poverty, ignorance, and poor governance are driving elephant poaching, together with increasing demand in China. The Committee has requested that Thailand report at the next meeting on its progress in regulating domestic trade in ivory and combating illegal trade. Finally, suspensions will remain in place for Gabon and Somalia.

The committee also recognized rhinoceros poaching and illegal trade in their horns as a major challenge that requires innovative approaches. One delegation went as far as describing the situation "as almost out of control". An expert group will scrutinize the progress made by range States and importing countries on this issue. According to a report submitted by the South African Government, a total of 174 rhinoceroses have been illegally killed in that country alone during the first six months of 2011. Poaching levels in South Africa have risen dramatically in recent years: 13 rhinoceroses poached in 2007, 83 in 2008, 122 in 2009 and 330 in 2010. A total of 122 suspected rhinoceroses poachers have been arrested in South Africa since January 2011, 60 of them in the Kruger National Park, which is the protected area that has suffered the biggest losses.

All populations of rhinoceroses are suffering from poaching, particularly those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Mozambique, Nepal, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Illegal trade in rhinoceros horn appears to be the drive behind this poaching and relies on fraudulent applications for CITES documents, abuse of legal trophy hunting and the use of couriers smuggling horns from southern Africa to Far East Asia.

If these decisions are relevant and essential, it is important to keep stressing that education about animal welfare is necessary. Most poachers, ivory carvers, and Chinese consumers are not aware of the impact that decimating these species is having on global ecosystems. As an example of such ignorance, anecdotal reports tell of how the majority of people involved in this trade believe that elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns grow back once they are hacked.