Poverty and Poaching: can CITES or the Convention on Biological Diversity stop the one of the root causes of the illegal wildlife trade?

Jennifer Timmons

In 2015 the United Nations created Sustainable Development Goal 15.7. That goal specifically addresses the urgent need to end poaching but despite this goal, the illegal wildlife trade is still one of the most profitable illegal enterprise in the world, bringing in up to 23 billion dollars a year. Wildlife trafficking can be done through complex crime syndicates or individuals looking for a quick buck. However, many high value crimes that make news headlines often trace back to an individual shooter who is usually a poor resident of the area where the poaching took place. With no way to make ends meet, these people turn to poaching to feed their families. A rhino poacher approached an investigative journalist and explained how he did not want to poach rhinos because it was so dangerous, but he had no other way to feed his family. The journalist discusses how the communities in his documentary are located on the outskirts of national parks in Africa, where there is very little means to earn a living. (Nick Read, The Traffickers: Killed for a Horn, NETFLIX 2016) It’s seen all over the world, the poorest communities struggle to survive and turn to poaching. Since wildlife trafficking includes so many different players, and usually involves crossing national borders, international agreements are needed to address the pressing issue of poverty threatening wildlife. There needs to be a way to provide aid to hard-to-reach places in developing counties, with a focused on specifically targeting communities with high poaching. Two international agreements come to mind when discussing the illegal wildlife trade, CITES and the Convention on Biological Diversity, but are they up to the task or do they fall short of their duties?

CITES aims to provide protection to all animals (and even plants) that are threatened or endangered. According to World Wildlife Fund, “CITES, which stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is a global agreement among governments to regulate or ban international trade in species under threat.” CITES is broken in to three trade categories: Appendix 1, Appendix 2, and Appendix 3. Appendix 1 is the most restrictive and includes critically endangered plants and animals. Appendix 1 species are completely prohibited from trade, except for rare cases involving scientific research.  This includes live, dead, and animal parts. According to World Wildlife Fund, CITES is heralded as one of the best tools to combat the illegal wildlife trade with over 183 member Parties regulating more than 35,000 species. However, CITES seems only partially to work by specifically targeting end consumers and not addressing poverty, one of the causes of poaching. CITES does not have a mechanism for developing a means to give alternative jobs to communities who participate in poaching, or addressing the issues of how poaching and poverty have a correlation. An approach is needed within CITES that would be different from a blanket aid package. Its goal should be to specifically seek out communities where poaching is the primary way to make a living, dissect the root causes of poverty (i.e. gangs, lack of public services, etc.), and address those issue.  CITES targets the end market but not the base of the problem. An approach is needed to target both ends of the trafficking cycle and CITES fails to do that.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (TCBD) likewise fails to target communities with high poaching. TCBD is focused on: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. TCBD was not necessarily created to deal with poaching and the illegal wildlife trade as mentioned in TRAFFIC’s Briefing on the Scope and Content of the Post2020 Global Biodiversity Framework report, “The Aichi Targets in the [T]CBD’s Strategic Plan to 2020 do not include a target specific to trade in wildlife, despite illegal and unsustainable trade being one of the key drivers of biodiversity loss, and sustainable, well-managed legal wildlife trade having a scope for providing benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystem services.” However, there is a section in the TCBD called Sustainable Wildlife Management which states that one of its goal is to tackle “Multidisciplinary approaches in sustainable wildlife management, including alternative livelihoods.” This section of the TCBD could easily focus on creating pathways for communities turning to poaching for a living to find alternative livelihoods. Unfortunately, TCBD falls short and has only focused on the bushmeat trade and not poaching as a whole. Another issue as stated by TRAFFIC in the earlier quote, is that there are no targets or benchmarks for meeting the goals. It’s not easy to implement a strategy as complex as providing possibly millions of people with alternative livelihoods with no way of telling if the implementation strategy is even working. In the end, TCBD fails to address poverty and poaching in a wholistic way.

While CITES is what usually comes to mind when discussing the illegal wildlife trade, TCBD has a better section that can address poaching specifically linked to poverty. Currently neither is addressing poverty as a significant factor to poaching, CITES targets the consumer, while TCBD focuses on biodiversity and genetic sharing. However, these are only two of the many international conventions, agreements, and treaties that could possibly address poverty to stop the illegal wildlife trade. Poverty is a complex issue and its causes vary greatly. While not every poaching incident may be directly related to poverty, and a great many aren’t, there is still enough of a correlation to be greatly concerned, especially when many of these people don’t want to be poaching in the first place. One thing is certain both CITES and TCBD do not address the issue. It’s interesting that poverty is not predominant in two conventions that specifically address issues concerning wildlife, when poverty is such a danger to it.

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