Four decades ago, the world adopted a new trading regime. It didn't cover agriculture, manufacturing or finance, but one of the world's most finite riches: its biodiversity. The officials meeting that day in 1973 hoped that by regulating the commercial trade in animals and plants, they could help secure the survival of some of the world's most iconic species.
As the meeting of the 177 members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok, Thailand on Sunday approaches, the successes and failures of that approach are becoming clear.
"CITES was set up 40 years ago with the best of intentions," said Mary Rice, Executive Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency in London. "But the landscape of everybody's world is now so different from what it was back then. I don't think that anyone 40 years ago had any idea that we would be dealing with anything like this scale of wildlife crime."
In a landmark report in December, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimated the illegal trade in wildlife to be worth as much as $26.bn a year - a figure lower than that associated with drugs, people trafficking and counterfeiting, but with a reputation as a "low risk, high reward" venture.
"2013 is the 40th anniversary of CITES and it will be a critical year for the world's wildlife," Secretary General John Scanlon wrote in a statement ahead of the meeting. "CITES is where the 'rubber hits the road'."
Some 35,000 species are now listed under the CITES trading regime. Appendix I is the strictest, preventing the trade of some of the world's most endangered species, while Appendix II and III are more flexible. Delegates in Bangkok will consider 70 proposals by 55 countries on species including sharks, timber, African elephants and rhinos.
Dr Colman O'Criodain is the WWF's policy analyst on the international wildlife trade and has followed CITES closely. "The convention's had a mixed record," he told Al Jazeera by phone from Geneva. "Things are immeasurably better than they would have been without it, but where it hasn't always worked it comes down to the governments. We talk about CITES as a cohesive organisation, but it's made up of 177 countries and it's as good or bad as they want to be collectively."
The Convention's Conference of Parties is held every three years - the last was in Doha - and is attended by senior government officials, more than 50 conservation groups, trading associations and others with a stake in the industry. Discussions and voting are often fraught, with allegations of vested interests and politicking.
A proposal on the table in Bangkok, which is backed by the European Union, aims to make the process more accountable and transparent by tightening rules on the use of secret ballots. Another proposal aims to ensure all nominees to CITES influential plant and animals committees, which are supposed to provide convention members with independent and sound scientific advice in order to make a "declaration of interests".
"Al Capone didn't go to jail because he was found guilty of being a gangster. He went to jail for not paying his taxes. We have got to be more imaginative."
- John Sellar
Although CITES itself now employs three law enforcement experts, officers from the member countries who are critical to the Convention's success in fighting environmental crime, are absent.
The laws related to CITES are notoriously complicated. The three appendices afford different levels of protection and are designed to mirror the threats posed by trade to a species' existence. In Appendix II, for instance, species bred in captivity may be traded even though ones caught in the wild cannot be. Then there are the national laws of Appendix III that can create loopholes that criminals are only too willing to exploit.
African elephants and rhinos, once touted as the world's, and CITES, biggest success stories after the imposition of strict regulations on their trade, are again in crisis.
Under Thai law, the sale of ivory from domestic elephants is legal. The WWF says that's helped make the country into one of the world's biggest hubs for black market ivory with a "massive amount" of illegal African ivory laundered through local shops where tourists are among the most enthusiastic buyers. Some 30,000 elephants are now being killed for their tusks each year.
A record 668 South African rhinos were killed for their horn last year amid rampant demand for their horn in Vietnam where it has been touted as a cure for cancer. Traffickers have also exploited laws that allow some animals to be hunted. The horn now sells on the black market for about $60,000 a kilo.
John Sellar headed the enforcement unit at CITES for 14 years. He says part of the problem is that wildlife crime has been near the bottom of countries' list of security problems for too many years. Billions of dollars have been pumped into the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror", leaving wildlife traffickers free to grow and expand their businesses, sometimes with the collusion of corrupt officers in the police, customs or other areas of enforcement.
The multitude of CITES laws and regulations that now govern the environmental trade is supposed to ensure, in CITES own words, that any trade is "sustainable, legal and traceable". But Sellar says valuable leads and intelligence are too often lost through sloppy policing while the lack of co-operation at both the national and international level makes it hard for the Convention to fulfil that ambition.
"Al Capone didn't go to jail because he was found guilty of being a gangster," Sellar said. "He went to jail for not paying his taxes. We have got to be more imaginative. We are picking off the small fry, but that's not good enough."
Addressing the problems
The Partnership against Transnational Crime through Regional Organised Law Enforcement (PATROL) hopes to address some of the problems. Co-ordinated by the UN Office for Drugs and Crime and funded partly by CITES, the course aims to educate police, border officials and others about the dangers of transnational crime and the best ways to combat smuggling.
"If CITES doesn't act responsibly, we are going to see the demise of some of our most iconic species."
- Mary Rice, EIA
In Trat, four hours to the east of Bangkok and close to the Cambodian border, Thai enforcement officers learn not only how to track and investigate drug smugglers and human traffickers but also those trying to make a fortune from the illegal wildlife trade. The training includes classroom sessions on identifying wildlife as well as simulated exercises on crucial skills such as tailing suspects, securing a crime scene and handling informants.
But it's not just a question of enforcement; demand has to be addressed too. Acknowledging the United States position as the world's second biggest destination for illegal wildlife, and the role that demand plays in fuelling the illegal trade, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed in December that the US government would make the purchase of endangered species or their products unacceptable. "We want friends to tell friends they don't want friends who ingest, display or otherwise use products that come from endangered species anywhere in the world," she said at the time.
NGOs say CITES should take a similar stance with its members and be prepared to use the sanctions or trade penalties at its disposal against those who do not comply.
"It's trade at any costs," said EIA's Rice. "There needs to be a step back and an assessment of what's in front of us. If CITES doesn't act responsibly, we are going to see the demise of some of our most iconic species."
As well as Thailand, WWF is calling on Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo to ban the ivory trade, while EIA estimates as much as 90 percent of the ivory sold in China is illegal.
Conservation groups are also looking for more pressure on Vietnam to curb demand for rhino horns.
"Now, after four decades of existence, it is time for the CITES Parties to reaffirm in an open forum that CITES is a conservation treaty and that its fundamental aim remains 'to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival'," wrote Azzedine Downes, the President and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera. "Without such a reaffirmation of its purpose and aim, CITES could lose its true course and, along with it, its ability to meet effectively the very purpose it was established to achieve."
Source: Al Jazeera