CITES Cop 17 – September 2016

At the CITES Cop 17 held in Johannesburg last month, all eight species of pangolin, known as the world’s most trafficked mammal, were up listed from Appendix II to Appendix I.  This means that all international commercial trade of pangolin and their parts is prohibited. This is indeed a great coup, but sadly reflects the dire reality of a species in major crisis. The fact that the pangolin achieved this feat, ultimately means we as a human race have in many ways failed this gentle creature.

With four species native to Asia and four to Africa two separate decisions on the fate of pangolins had to be voted on at CITES.  It had taken a lengthy four years to get to this point.

On Wednesday the 28th of September, pangolin came up on the CITES agenda. Sitting in Committee room 1 waiting for the Secretariat to introduce the pangolin for discussion was mind numbing.  I felt as if I was returning to boarding school, the anticipation was border-line painful.  The four Asian pangolin were up first. Indonesia opposed the up lifting strongly, they put forward their agenda to commercially farm pangolin for conservation purposes in order to save the species.  Nonetheless all supporting countries over rode Indonesia and it went to a vote.

Sitting on the edge of my seat, awaiting the outcome made me think about the importance of this process and how it could change the survival of a species or not.  That we human beings, who continue to fail multiple species globally, held the fate of the pangolin in our hands, and all it would take was a press of a button. The atmosphere was incredibly tense.  The 30 seconds for voting was up. The screens cleared and the results were displayed.  One vote opposed – Indonesia, five countries abstained, one of which was Namibia. Thankfully it was a walk over from those countries supporting the up listing of the Asian species – Zimbabwe being one of the supporting countries to up list the Asian species.  It was now 12 o’clock – lunch time!

Africa would have to wait, which meant that there would be further discussions and plotting from the range states.  How would Africa vote? Would the African range states stand together? Would they understand the long term devastation, even extinction that lay before this species if it were not up listed?

My mouth was dry, for the next two hours I spoke to eight separate African range states dialoguing about how the fate of the pangolin, a species being stolen from us illegally, was in their hands. It simply came down to a couple of questions. Should we stand for this or should we take action? What would it mean if Africa lost this species? Should we watch this mysterious creature that is a big part of African culture and heritage disappear, just to fulfil the cultural beliefs and traditional medicinal practices of a continent far away?

It was one of the most uncomfortable feelings that I have felt, in a very long time.  So many dynamics were at play and it wasn’t just about the survival of the species – CITES never is.  Two o’clock arrived and Senegal introduced the proposal to up list all four African species, Nigeria counter supported, Mali stood up and also spoke in support while holding firmly onto one of the IFAW pangolin stuffed toys, which I believe helped symbolise the need to rescue the species.

Cameroon was next – there was a hush and we waited with baited breath, we were not sure whether Cameroon would support all four species being up listed or the giant pangolin only. Their decision would have the ability to sow doubt and create a ripple effect for all the remaining African delegates. Cameroon stood firmly in support of all four species being up listed.  Thereafter all African delegates spoke out, only of their support for the up listing to Appendix 1. I am proud to say that Africa’s vote was unanimous for all four African pangolin species to be up listed to Appendix I.  What a victory!  The floor broke out in ecstatic applause for the final vote and it was later stated that CoP 17 was indeed the convention for the pangolin! I was incredibly proud to be an African at that moment. Africa stood as one, which definitely led to this progressive outcome.

I know that the hard work has only just begun, but it is a new beginning for pangolin and CoP 17 can be heralded as the start of bringing global awareness to the serious plight of the eight species.

This experience has shown me what power Governments of Africa can have.  If they can continue to make collective and constructive decisions, then the outcome ultimately can determine the safety of an entire species.  CITES is most certainly not the answer to keeping a species from going extinct – however it is a giant leap in the right direction if used correctly.  In Africa with the up listing, the legislation of four African countries, including Cameroon, will automatically offer pangolin better protection under the national law.

Legislation is only the first step, the second and possibly the most daunting is enforcing the law.  I can only hope that now that there is a better appreciation and understanding of what is happening to the pangolin in Africa, all Governments, NGO’s and the relevant law enforcement agencies will embrace the pangolin in the same way they have rhino and ivory trade; and give the pangolin species across the globe a voice and most importantly a chance to survive. I feel honoured to have been a part of the process and to have witnessed the outcome.

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