In dubious battle

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has failed to curb illegal trade in Indian wildlife and wildlife products. But India's stand at CITES, at variance with its position in other environmental fora, was repugnant and hollow

By Neena Singh, Sumita Dasgupta, Anju Sharma
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

In dubious battle


An ecofascist’s last stand at Harare

India consistently voted for trade bans in products made from endangered species

ZTHE denouement was dramatic. The decision of the 10th Conference of Parties (COP-10) on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to allow restricted trade in ivory and limited culling of the African elephant in three African nations left the Indian delegation fuming. And confused. Led by a relatively junior official, the Additional Inspector-General of Forests (Wildlife) in the ministry of environment and forests (MEF), S C Dey, the delegates had gone to Harare with a clear objective: oppose any proposal to lift the ban on trade in species. But the tremendous mobilisation of opinion by the African states at the venue caught the Indians off-guard.

“We were totally unprepared for that kind of pressure,” says Ashok Kumar of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), who was a member of the delegation. That Ashok Kumar is one of India’s leading anti-people wildlifers reflects the domination of India’s wildlife establishment by ecofascist conservationists. Adds a surprised S C Dey, “The media hype was tremendous. Every newspaper headline, every other programme on state-run television discussed the issue. Many delegates got thoroughly brainwashed.” The African nations, including the 31 African elephant range states, had had at least 10 meetings before the conference. They had reached a general consensus before the CITES meet, although 10-odd countries in western and central Africa had reservations. While the Africans had done their homework, the Indian delegation did not even have figures to back their claim that Asian elephant populations would suffer from the downlisting.

Before the final voting, a working group chaired by Norway was set up to discuss possible control mechanisms for ivory trade. According to Dey, the delay in between the discussion and the voting “gave time to the host nation to try and convince countries abstaining from voting, or those opposed to the move, to get the required two-thirds majority.” The European Union (EU), which had initially opposed the proposal, compromised. But India, in a desperate last-minute bid, asked for another debate. The plea was rejected. Put to vote again, the proposal was passed, although the EU abstained.

Precarious situation

By voting against the downlisting, India found itself in an embarrassing political situation as well as isolated, since its stand was at total variance from most other developing countries’. So the delegates started playing their little games. “We were voting against countries with which we have had close political and economic relations,” says Dey. India did not speak out against the proposal independently. “We lobbied with the African countries which had reservations on the downlisting. During the discussions, we strongly supported these countries whenever they put up their points.” An analysis of the Indian voting pattern at the Convention shows clearly that India opposed every proposal for downlisting, and supported all the proposals for increased protection of endangered species. So while India made a strong plea against South Africa’s proposal to shift the African White Rhinoceros to Appendix II, on the grounds that it would have negative repercussions on population of the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros in India.

Of the 77 proposals placed before COP-10, 30 were for downlisting of species from Appendix I to Appendix II. Of these, 20 were accepted and 10 rejected. India voted against almost every proposal for downlisting, including the five on whales, put up by Japan and Norway; one for the Hawksbill Turtle, proposed by Cuba; and one on the Bengal Monitor and the Yellow Monitor lizards, initiated by Bangladesh. “Since Cuba is one of our supporters, we had to be diplomatic,” says Dey on the Indian stand on turtles. So, in an awkward attempt at diplomacy, the Indian delegation suggested that the issue be discussed under the Central Migratory Species Convention. Predictably, India supported the listing of four birds — the Hill Mynah, the Straw-headed Bulbul, Red-billed Leiothrix and the Green Avadavat — in Appendix II. It also independently proposed that two medicinal herbs — Picrorhiza kurrooa or ‘Kutki’, and Nardostachys grandiflora, or ‘Jatamansi’ — be listed in Appendix II. The proposals were passed in spite of objections by the CITES Secretariat and some European countries that the information furnished was inadequate (see box: Shoddy work).

Kutki and Jatamansi are used extensively by the pharmaceuticals industry and herbal cosmetics manufacturers. According to the department of Indian systems of medicine, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and Trade Record Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC), demand for these plants has outstripped supply.

Waving a lone flag

India continues to subscribe to the viewpoint of rich Western NGOs, and is isolated among developing countries

EVER since India ratified CITES in 1976, it has been seen as one of the staunchest supporters of the convention. In the 10 COPs that have taken place, India has invariably voted against the downlisting of the status of species. India has consistently voted against moving whales from Appendix I to II in the last few COPs, although whaling does not affect Indian off-shore fishing. In fact, India has been totally closed to the idea of any kind of trade, and sees CITES Appendix I listing as a kind of saviour for endangered species. Ashok Kumar, a delegate to CITES conferences in the past, admits that India’s stand has been rigid. It has played a lead role in framing principles of the convention, including the precautionary one: if there is any doubt about the status of a species due to lack of information, trade should be controlled forthwith. Indian officials are unhappy over the recent trend, and see it as a dilution of the guiding principles of CITES. “Never before has the concept of ‘sustainable use’ dominated the convention so much,” says Dey. “We fear that this will open the floodgates of trade in (endangered) species and lead to the disappearance of many.”

But the Indian wildlife establishment has a closed mind. It was surprised in Harare because it has consistently turned a blind eye to Indian proponents of sustainable use. Romulus Whitaker, a conservationist working on crocodiles in India at the Centre for Herpetology, Madras, has consistently argued for sustainable use. Vice-chairman of the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group, Whitaker explains that at, on the contrary, trade in crocodile skins, when properly monitored, can be most effective in ensuring sustainability of crocodile populations. In the majority of cases, both producers and consumers of crocodile skins and meat adhere to restrictions. Admittedly, there are few wildlife species that have been effectively used up till now on a sustainable basis. “The bottom line,” says Whitaker, “is that trade in products from endangered species, if properly monitored, works. This is proven by the fact that crocodile trade has led to stabilizing of crocodile populations in the trading countries.”

An isolated stand

India may have won accolades from Western conservationists for not selling out to the trade lobby, but it is becoming increasingly isolated in the developing world. There is scant support on conservation issues from Southeast Asian countries. Defends Dey, “We have little in common with these countries.” But India also seems to have little in common with South Asian nations. Voting down the Bangladeshi proposals at the COP-10 was a case in point. In fact, there have been few honest attempts to discuss the issue at the regional level. On the other hand, the African proposal on the elephant was supported by Caribbean and Latin American countries.

India’s position at CITES is also at variance with its position at other environmental conventions, as well as its stand at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). At the WTO, India has consistently opposed developed countries wielding trade barriers on environmental grounds to armtwist developing nations into following their diktat. In 1996, India hit out at the US when the latter decided to ban import of shrimp from India, on the grounds that shrimp harvesting in India was endangering some species of turtle. It has also voiced concern over trade restrictions linked to labour laws in developing countries. Yet, at CITES, India has vociferously supported trade bans.

Dey sees little contradiction in this. “The WTO is a forum for discussing promotion of trade while CITES is a convention on restriction of trade. Opposing trade sanctions at the WTO does not imply that we cannot vote for bans on trade at CITES.” But this raised many eyebrows at the CITES conference. At the recently concluded UN General Assembly Special Session on Environment at New York, India voted against the setting up of a global forest convention since it will interfere with the country’s sovereign rights over forest resources, and infringe on the rights of forest-dependent communities. At the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), India’s stand is similar. So its stand at CITES has sent out confusing signals. The emerging opinion is that CITES has failed to address the issues of rights of poor communities dependent on natural resources (see box: One man’s medicine...), and mechanisms through which monetary benefits of conservation can accrue to range countries. “Unfortunately, CITES is an old convention. It is not changing itself according to some newer conventions like CBD, with more progressive guiding principles,” says Ashish Kothari of the Indian environmental NGO, Kalpvriksha. So where does India’s stand on conservation leave it, when there is increasing pressure on CITES to shift its priorities and focus?


Neither CITES nor the retrogressive Indian approach to conservation has been able to protect key Indian species from poaching

IN 1976, when India became a signatory to CITES, the Indian tiger, the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros and the Asian elephant were already listed as protected species in the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. All three species have fared badly despite laws against domestic trade in these species and international trade under CITES.

Time is running out for the Indian tiger, which faces extinction due to severe pressure from international trade in tiger skins and bones (see graph: Thriving trade). Till a few years back, the main demand was for tiger skin, which had a market in rich Western countries and the Middle East. While that declined as a result of anti-fur campaigns, the market for Chinese traditional medicines — which utilise tiger bones and rhino horn — grew. Japan and Hong Kong emerged as the biggest consumers of these medicines, which are also sold to Chinese communities throughout the world.


Since tiger populations in most parts of Asia have been reduced to a handful, the main source of supply for this market is the Indian tiger. When Project Tiger was launched in 1973, the tiger population had dwindled to an alarming low of 1,827. Official estimates place the current tiger population at 3,750, although the actual figure may be lower (see graph: Under threat). “If CITES is not able to influence or force consumer nations who are party to the convention to control domestic demand for tiger parts, the whole purpose of the convention is defeated,” says Samar Singh, director-general, World Wide Fund for Nature-India, who has been closely involved with CITES from the time India ratified it.

imageThe Indian rhino faces similar problems. International demand of its horn is mainly responsible for poaching in India (see box: A lucrative trade). The population of rhinos in India stands at 1,512, 80 per cent of which is concentrated in Kaziranga National Park and the rest in a fragmented habitat covering 1,300 sq km. “The rhino is found in defined pockets of land, more or less contiguous and well protected. Yet its population has not shown any significant growth in the last five to seven years. This points at the problem of poaching,” says Vinod Rishi, director, Project Elephant, who has served extensively in Assam.

The tale of the Indian elephant is different. According to official estimates, its population is on the rise. But the picture is not so rosy. The most serious issue is the decline in the population of male tuskers, indicating significant levels of poaching. Vinod Rishi suggests that there are as few as 1,500 tuskers left. The average male-female ratio is as low as 1:7, according to Project Elephant figures. Non-government sources suggest that the ratio may be closer to 1:15 or 1:25. A recent report of the Asian Elephant Conservation Centre (AECC) and the WPSI (A god in distress: Threats of poaching and the ivory trade to the Asian elephant in India), documents disparities in elephant male-female ratios across the country. Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala, is perhaps most severely effected by poaching, with the ratio close to 1:122. In the last 20 years, the population of adult males and tuskers in India may have been reduced by as much as 75 per cent. What is more, the strength of herds has also been affected by poaching. There may be less than 10 populations with over 1,000 elephants, according to a 1990 study. The rest are small herds with less than 100 elephants each. Obviously, poaching of tuskers, which affects the male-female ratio, will affect the survival of the species over time. The elephant was put in Schedule I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act and domestic trade banned in 1986 — ten years after export and import of ivory was banned. In 1991, sale of African ivory was also banned. However, elephant poaching continues, an indication that illegal ivory trade is thriving. The AECC-WPSI study estimates that as many as 250 elephants are killed annually.

This clearly indicates that India has not benefited from conventions like CITES in spite of strict domestic laws to protect key species. The condition of the lesser-known species can only be guessed at. And the government cannot feign ignorance. In fact, the report of the Committee on Prevention of Illegal Trade in Wildlife and Wildlife Products, published by the MEF in 1994, admitted that the trade is thriving.

The enforcement dilemma

It is not merely the effectiveness of CITES, but the problem of enforcement of domestic laws, which has resulted in this state of affairs. Trade bans were seen as the best way to police illegal trade. But they have not proved to be a viable solution. Rishi laments the lack of funds for conservation efforts. “The Forest Department is not adequately equipped to enforce the law,” he says. And allocations are not likely to succeed in the near future. Western NGOs and governments may offer money for conservation to India, but on whose terms will the money be available?

The real debate is over appropriate management of wildlife and protected areas in India. Wildlife management laws have banned trade in wildlife products and created protected areas where the rights of local people are subject to conservation priorities, and the responsibility for enforcement rests with the bureaucracy. This approach has eroded all support for wildlife conservation among local people. It is now being acknowledged by forest officials that people’s support is desperately needed for any enforcement.

“No worthwhile campaign to fight crime against wildlife can succeed without the cooperation of the people inhabitin protected areas and buffer zones,” says the MEF report on illegal trade in wildlife. But the report has no innovative recommendations to make. It remains quiet on the real issue: giving people rights and responsibilities, and partnerships in management of reserves. Says Avdhash Kaushal of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, an NGO working among the Gujjars in Rajaji National Park, Dehradun, “The Gujjars are the most effective protectors of the forest. Give them the rights to manage the park, and they will show you how effectively wildlife could be protected from poachers and traders.”

Efforts at community management of wildlife have worked admirably in some African countries. But the bureaucratic stranglehold in India, has throttled such initiatives in India. Meanwhile, neighbouring Pakistan seems to have learnt the lesson faster. In a recent move, it gave communities protecting the Markhor (a mountain goat) the right to issue hunting licences for the species. Profit from the proceeds will go towards conservation.

Accosting the issues

Perhaps one answer to conservation of certain species lies in captive breeding. But this remains a contentious issue. Conservationists across the world criticise such practice on ethical and moral grounds. But it is becoming increasingly clear that endangered species will have to pay for their conservation. As far as the Indian species are concerned, the populations are so low that their trade would not be a viable solution for raising resources for conservation. But captive breeding or farming could. Romulus Whitaker and Harry Andrews of the Centre for Herpetology, in raising the issue, have stirred the proverbial hornets’ nest. “We have been advocating trade in captive bred crocodiles since 1975, when a joint project of the United Nations Development Program, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the government of India on rehabilitation of the species was launched in Madras. The intention was ultimately to take up sustainable farming/ ranching,” says Whitaker. He took up the issue of sharing the benefits of trade with the local Irula tribe. But the authorities refused to even consider the proposal.

imageBut there is no dearth of anti-people conservationists who cannot see the reality under their own nose and their ‘arguments’ are many. Says Ashok Kumar of WPSI, “Such a project might generate some money for a crocodile bank through trade of skins, but would jeopardise the wild species.” Renee Borges, an ecologist associated with the Bombay Natural History Society, agrees. “Farming of wild species to reduce trade pressure should not be attempted, unless sophisticated signature systems are devised. It would be impossible to distinguish between products of the farmed versus wild individuals, and illegal trade would thrive,” she says.

“We don’t see this as a problem as difficult to rectify as the present state of apathy,” Whitaker and Andrews shoot back. “Skins can be tagged magnetically with metal inserts and the number read out on a standard device like a bar-code reader. These tags cannot be duplicated.” Since both exporting and importing countries are CITES signatories, illegal or untagged crocodile skins in a consignment could mean instant revocation of a farm’s operating licence — a heavy price to pay, which a farmer would willingly avoid. They claim that with their expertise, they could easily restock the country’s crocodile habitats in the unlikely event of mass poaching of crocodiles. The conservationists argue that it is easy to farm crocodiles in captivity. “But that is not the objective of conservation. We need to let wild species grow in the wild,” says Ashok Kumar.

While the authorities, supported by anti-people conservationists, are closed to the idea of farming for trade, the issue may be raked up time and again. Meanwhile, illegal trade is taking a heavy toll on at least three animal species in India. Six or seven years from now, India may well be singing a requiem for the tiger. The question is, how long will the authorities take to wake up to realities? Can India afford to pay for conservation from depleted coffers? Can it afford to ignore the local communities who stand to lose from lopsided conservation practices? Can it afford, finally, to ignore the lesson other developing countries are learning?

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