PEGAS attends CITES 66th Standing Committee meeting

The 66th meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES was held 11-15th January 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland. The Standing Committee is an important body in the functioning of CITES. It “provides policy guidance to the Secretariat concerning the implementation of the Convention and oversees the management of the Secretariat’s budget. Beyond these key roles, it coordinates and oversees … the work of other committees and working groups; carries out tasks given to it by the Conference of the Parties; and drafts resolutions for consideration by the Conference of the Parties.”

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The 66th CITES Standing Committee meeting had over 400 participants

The Standing Committee (SC) also initiates action to suspend trade as a sanction against Parties (i.e. countries belonging to the Convention) that do not comply with important recommendations. Certain ‘recommendations’ contained in Resolutions and Decisions are in fact requirements, but CITES does not use undiplomatic words such as ‘require’ or ‘command’.

The SC is the best place to initiate any new actions within CITES to address the illegal trade of great apes or any other species. The entire membership of CITES is now 182 Parties, while the SC is made up of only 35 Parties (including the SC host country, and previous and next Conference of the Parties host countries), most of which rotate. It is more efficient to get things done with 35 SC Party members than with 182 at a Conference of the Parties (CoP), which is held every 2-and-a-half to 3 years. Fewer than 500 participants attend a SC meeting, thousands attend a CoP.

The preparatory work of examining illegal trade evidence, identifying the primary perpetrators of illegal trade, and the supply and demand countries, the methods employed in trafficking and trade routes, and related information can be carried out in the SC meeting in order to formulate strategies and actions to address the problems.

Once actions have been agreed upon, wording must be formulated to either produce a new Resolution or Decision, or revise an existing one, to provide ‘recommendations’ (i.e. instructions) to Parties, the Secretariat and the Standing Committee respectively for action.

This process of examination and discussion cannot be carried out in the plenary meeting because there simply is not enough time (see Sellar’s recent commentary on it). The usual procedure is for a SC member or observer Party to request from the Chair that a working group (WG) be created. If other Parties support the request, the Chair invites expressions of interest from Parties and observers, including NGOs. The WG usually numbers 20 or fewer Parties, international organizations and NGOs. They then schedule meetings to take place in rooms adjoining the main conference hall, and report their findings back to the plenary.

The proposed new or revised Resolution or Decision is submitted as a working document at the next Conference of the Parties as an agenda item to be discussed, possibly revised further, and then either accepted or rejected by the full CITES membership. The WG, possibly with additional members now, is essential in this process.

All of the major species groups, and some not so major, at some time or other have had a WG formed to discuss important trade issues (e.g. elephants, rhinos, Asian big cats, cheetahs, pangolins, sharks and rays, snakes, various plant and timber species, even sturgeons and paddlefish).

Great apes, oddly, have never had a WG, even for discussion of the formulation of CITES Resolution Conf. 13.4 Conservation of and Trade in Great Apes, produced by the CITES Secretariat in 2004. The Secretariat also prepared on its own the only revision to RC 13.4, made at the 16th Conference of the Parties (CoP) in March, 2013.

At the 65th SC meeting in July, 2014, a SC member did request formation of a great apes working group (GAWG), supported by another Party and several NGOs. The discussion was abruptly cut off by John Scanlon, the CITES Secretary-General, when he initiated a closed-microphone consultation with the SC Chair. See this Mongabay article for a description. In the report on great apes submitted to the 65th SC, the Secretariat stated in part, “data from official sources suggest that the illegal international trade in great ape specimens is currently limited” and “there is very little illegal international trade in great ape specimens”.

The key words in this statement are “data from official sources,” which apparently consist of its own Trade Database and reports compiled by INTERPOL and the World Customs Union. “Official sources” seemingly do not include its sister organization within the UN Environment Programme, the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), which is charged with great ape conservation. At the last CITES Conference of the Parties, held in Bangkok in March 2013, GRASP released a report entitled Stolen Apes. This report found that between 2005 and 2011, approximately 22,200 great apes were lost in trafficking related incidents. The report estimates that every year approximately 5% of the total great ape population on Earth is lost due to trafficking and related killing. Is that really “limited” and “very little”?

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The situation has not improved since then. In June 2014 GRASP released a press statement asserting that “The illegal trade in live chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans showed no signs of diminishing – and may actually be getting worse.” In an October 2015 webcast the GRASP coordinator said that seizure rates of illegally traded great apes were higher than previously.

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Great ape illegal trade seizure rates have increased since the Stolen Apes report was written, according to GRASP

The findings on trafficking from unofficial sources such as media reports and NGO investigations are not included in the Secretariat’s reports, nor up to the present is GRASP’s information included, although there are plans for GRASP to begin reporting officially, probably in cooperation with the Section on Great Apes (SGA) of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group. The intended contents and format of the reports are currently being developed.

Recognizing that there was a glaring need for a more complete set of information on great ape trafficking to be presented to CITES Parties, PEGAS devised a plan to achieve this at the 66th SC meeting. The plan was composed of three parts: (1) persuade one or more Parties to submit a Working Document containing a call to revise RC 13.4 to deal with increasing levels of great ape trafficking, (2) induce a Party or Parties to submit an Information Document that contained highlights of the excluded media and NGO investigation findings and (3) call for the creation of a GAWG to examine the new (to CITES) information and discuss the RC 13.4 revision.

PEGAS met with the Kenya Wildlife Service – Kenya’s CITES Management Authority – in 2014 after the 65th SC meeting to present the plan and seek their support, which was obtained. PEGAS and Ol Pejeta Conservancy CEO Richard Vigne met with GRASP staff on 28 August 2015 to discuss a number of issues of mutual concern regarding great ape illegal trade. At that meeting PEGAS brought up the need for a GAWG in order to create a forum within CITES for examining the full range of information available that reported on great ape trafficking. GRASP did not think that a GAWG would achieve anything, because the Secretariat’s position was firm, but GRASP did not say anything opposing the creation of a working group.

PEGAS in 2015 then drafted a Working Document and Information Document and shared it with Doug Cress of GRASP, Ian Redmond of the Ape Alliance and Mark Jones of the Born Free Foundation for their comments. After making the advised revisions by the reviewers the documents were submitted to KWS for their review.

The plan was also presented and discussed at an Information Exchange Meeting held at the GRASP offices in the United Nations headquarters in Gigiri, Kenya, on 9th November 2015. The organizations attending were PEGAS, GRASP, KWS, Ape Alliance, Born Free Foundation, PASA, UNODC, EAGLE, Jane Goodall Institute, Humane Society of the United States and WildlifeImpact. The Wildlife Conservation Society was also supposed to attend, but the person came down with the flu and gave his apologies.

Not everyone expressed their full support for the plan, but none of the participants openly opposed it. The main doubts were that the objectives of a revision of RC 13.4 could be achieved by other means, and if the GAWG was again rejected it would constitute a major setback for the eventual creation of one. A main concern of PEGAS, however, was not just the revision of RC 13.4, but also the presentation of the ‘non-official’ information on the scale of great ape trafficking, and the details of it, to CITES Parties. Without a GAWG, there was no way to accomplish this officially and get it into the CITES record. The Secretariat could continue to assert its claims that “there is very little illegal international trade in great ape specimens”.

KWS, with the assistance of the Ape Alliance, obtained the co-sponsorship of the Uganda CITES Management Authority to submit the Working Document, which was done as SC66 Doc. 48.2. Uganda is a great ape range State and a member of the Standing Committee, so this was an important accomplishment. PEGAS would like to thank sincerely Patrick Omondi and Solomon Kyalo of KWS and James Lutalo of the Uganda CITES M.A. for their assistance and cooperation.

In the end no sponsor of the Information Document could be found, even though revisions were made to water it down. There was simply too much evidence of malfeasance on the part of certain named Party countries by non-official sources for another Party to attach their name to it. The Information Document, in CITES format, can be viewed here. Information Documents are limited to 12 pages of text, so not everything could be put in. There is quite a bit of history given of great ape activities within CITES because it is important to establish continuity of the past with what is occurring today. CITES has not solved the great ape trafficking problem, in spite of trying to create the impression that it has.

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CITES has not solved the great ape trafficking problem, in spite of trying to create the impression that it has.

PEGAS investigations of online wildlife trafficking, particularly in the Middle East, and a recent visit to Thailand, Vietnam and China, have shown that great ape trafficking and misuse in commercial activities are more common than even PEGAS believed a year ago.

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Online trafficking in the Middle East is out of control

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East Asian zoos and safari parks import dozens of young great apes annually for performances and use in fee photography with visitors

The plan to get a GAWG created at SC66 was undone by two main factors – agenda scheduling and lack of support for SC66 Doc. 48.2 from the Secretariat, GRASP and certain NGOs. GRASP claimed that certain great ape range States and NGOs did not support 48.2 because they had not been involved in the process. The Ape Alliance had, however, written to all SC members prior to the start of the meeting to inform them of the contents and reason behind 48.2 and requesting their support for it.

The Species Survival Network, which coordinates the activities of dozens of “conservation, environmental and animal protection organizations around the world to secure CITES protection for plants and animals affected by international trade”, recommended that SC66 agree to establish the proposed Working Group. Nevertheless, GRASP requested Kenya and Uganda to withdraw the document, which with considerable consternation they felt they had to do if GRASP did not support it.

The scheduling was also a major factor. The Great Apes item on the agenda was originally scheduled for Thursday afternoon (which wasn’t known when the document was drafted), the penultimate day of the meeting. Even if a GAWG had been formed, it would not have had the time to meet, adequately discuss revision of RC 13.4, and report back to the plenary. As it turned out, because of delays, Agenda item 48, Great Apes, did not come up until mid morning on Friday, the last day.

The solution could have been for Uganda and Kenya to request that the GAWG be formed, which would only have taken about 10 minutes, with the instruction from the Chair to meet electronically after the meeting, as other working groups do. A draft revision of RC 13.4 could have been discussed and agreed upon in a Google Group or similar forum, and submitted as a draft resolution revision Working Document to CoP17 before the 27 April deadline. Presumably GAWG members who were Parties would co-sponsor the submission. The Information Document could also have been circulated to the GAWG members for their review. If this course had been taken, the GAWG could have met early on during CoP17 to finalize the presentation to plenary under the Great Apes agenda item.

So what happens now?

An informal group of NGOs is working on a draft RC 13.4 revision by email, which eventually will be reviewed by GRASP and selected Parties, and Party sponsors will be solicited to submit it before the 27 April deadline. If the Great Apes agenda item is scheduled on a Thursday again, the same thing that happened at SC66 could occur again. No time for a GAWG to be formed, to meet to review the revision, and report back to plenary. The Chair would no doubt put consideration of it off until a subsequent Standing Committee meeting.

In the meantime great ape trafficking continues, and CITES is still doing little about it, with lack of support from organizations that should be helping.

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Eight young orangutans used in a band at Safari World, just outside of Bangkok. This is illegal according to Thai law.

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