The EU needs to use its voting power to step up in the fight against wildlife trafficking, but so far at an international conference on wildlife trafficking, it has provoked the ire of West and Central African nations and disregarded the European Parliament’s resolution on it, writes Martin Hojsík.
Martin Hojsík is a Slovak member of the European Parliament and part of Renew Europe. He is the chair of the Parliament delegation to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Panama.
At a time when global biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, with around one million animal and plant species being threatened by extinction, the European Commission has said it is committed to taking action to halt the decline. But is it truly putting its money where its mouth is?
Right now, the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) are meeting in Panama at COP19 to deliberate over proposals tabled primarily by range states in a bid to save their own native species from extinction, or conversely – in the case of some proposals on rhinos and elephants – to allow them to be commercially exploited again.
The EU forms a highly influential voting bloc in this international decision-making forum. It has the power to make or break the proposals put forward by other nations.
However, with power also comes responsibility to not only take a precautionary approach but also listen to the concerns expressed by range states with respect to the bleak future faced by their native species.
A proposal from 10 West and Central African nations to transfer the common hippopotamus to CITES Appendix I, thereby prohibiting the commercial trade in hippo parts and products, provides a pertinent example of this.
In our European Parliament Resolution on the EU’s strategic objectives for COP19, we advocated in support of this proposal.
In the run-up to Panama, it became clear that the EU posed an obstacle for the success of the hippo proposal since they had various questions about the supporting scientific data and other range states were far from keen and lobbying against it.
As a result, the proponents decided that they would amend their proposal to make it more palatable to the EU.
The amended hippo proposal sought to retain a listing on Appendix II (i.e. trade is still permitted, but must be controlled to avoid utilisation incompatible with a species’ survival) with an annotation of a zero-export quota for wild specimens traded for commercial purposes.
While this seemed like a sensible compromise, the EU incomprehensibly decided to propose a ‘split-listing’ of this annotation to allow countries like Tanzania and Uganda with healthier hippo populations to continue trading them.
This proposal would have done nothing to address the problem of ivory from poached hippos being laundered through the legal trade. Moreover, the countries whose trade the EU was seeking to protect are also those that have been most greatly implicated in illegal hippo ivory trade.
At a time when the EU has committed to stepping up the fight against wildlife trafficking – issuing its revised Action Plan just days before the start of COP19 – it is unfathomable that we would even contemplate keeping open an avenue for the laundering of parts of poached hippos to make it onto the legal market.
Ultimately, the EU’s split-listing proposal failed, as did the amended proposal from ten hippo range states, leaving the original proponents angry, incredulous and without international agreement to protect their hippos from commercial trade.
Reportedly, this also led to retaliation with 21 African states pointedly voting against a joint proposal from Vietnam and the EU to list the Chinese water dragon in Appendix II.
I understand their anger. Powerful bureaucrats from far away are telling less influential countries that their wildlife populations do not deserve greater international protection from trade. Surely these nations know better than anyone else that their native species are threatened with extinction?
We cannot say that science does not matter. Biological and trade criteria must be considered when making decisions about species protection. However, the Commission has the responsibility under the TFEU to follow precautionary principle in its decision-making on environmental matters, including the protection of wildlife.
While, of course, there have already been several big successes at CITES, such as protections for sharks and sea cucumbers, the application of a precautionary approach has not been in evidence as far as the hippo proposal is concerned, as well as for other proposals on amphibians, like glass frogs, and reptiles, like map turtles, which few people have ever heard of.
As the head of the European Parliament’s delegation to COP19, I regret that the decisions taken by the EU at this meeting are – in some instances – diametrically opposed to the recommendations in the Parliament’s Resolution.
In so doing, the EU has not only provoked the ire of West and Central African nations but also displayed disregard for the position of the democratically elected representatives of EU citizens, and behaved in ways that are at odds with its commitments to halt global biodiversity loss.
This shows that talk is cheap. What we need to see is political action consistent with the EU’s fine words.
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