Where conservation happens

By Sarah Foster

I am tired. So. Very. Tired. And as I sit here on the plane heading back to Canada from South Africa, a childhood rhyme is playing through my head… "Slowly, slowly, very slowly, creeps the garden snail…slowly, slowly, very slowly up the garden trail…".  Such was the pace of the 17th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties. What is that? Well CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. (Yeah, I know, thank goodness for acronyms!).  It’s a global framework for regulating the international trade in wild animals and plants, with the aim that exports do not harm wild populations. Every three years the member countries (called Parties) get together to make the big decisions for the Convention, including which species to regulate. In addition to Party representatives, the meetings are attended by intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). More than 3000 people usually attend, and this time – for the first time – I was one of them.

Dr. Sarah Foster at CITES CoP17 in Johannesburg, South Africa

Dr. Sarah Foster at CITES CoP17 in Johannesburg, South Africa

Why is “slowly, slowly…” stuck in my head? Well most of the meeting was akin to watching paint dry. Entire agenda items amounted to debates over the use of different synonyms in the text of the often obscure Decisions and Resolutions that would guide Parties’ actions for the next three years. People’s speaking points would often be along the lines of “Thank you Chair, while we generally agree with the intention of draft Decision X – we recommend that under paragraph 2, sub-paragraph triple i, in the second sentence starting with “blah”, that the word “very” be changed to “hugely”. Thank you Chair”. Riveting, isn’t it? Except that it actually was!! It was all incredibly exciting and incredibly important! In two very large rooms, governments were setting priorities for the conservation of species being threatened by international trade. I have worked in policy long enough to know that if governments don’t commit to address an issue then the issue is unlikely to be addressed. And that synonyms matter – they could mean the difference between something being given a low priority versus a high priority in government planning and spending.  It was in these two rooms that the three-year work plan for species threatened by trade was being determined – and there is nothing dull or insignificant about that.

Sarah with Ute Grimm, the CITES nomenclature specialist (Ute retired at this CoP and seahorse taxonomy was her very last agenda item!).

Sarah with Ute Grimm, the CITES nomenclature specialist (Ute retired at this CoP and seahorse taxonomy was her very last agenda item!).

I have also worked in this game long enough to know that every agenda item – no matter how little time it gets at the meeting – is underpinned by years of intense effort by people committed to conservation. Take the one seahorse agenda item – it involved deciding whether species names put forward by Australia represented real species. The item came up on the floor, and was passed through in about five seconds. No big deal right? Except the reason it passed through so quickly was that we had worked our tails off (no seahorse pun intended) to carry out a huge taxonomic revision of all seahorse species, and then discussed and debated our findings with the Australian CITES Authorities ahead of the meeting. This led to Australia revising its request in line with the best available science (ours !) such that nothing was left to debate at the actual meeting. That five-second agenda item sat on the shoulders of about, oh, one full year of (unfunded) person-hours. Many other agenda items went the same way – passing after minimal (if any) debate, but only because of the tireless inter-sessional effort by Parties, the CITES Secretariat and species/issue experts from IGOs and NGOs. The CoPs are long, and the work is intense… but the real work has generally already happened between the meetings, usually with inadequate resources.

Of course some of agenda items were anything but straightforward – and resulted in a lot of debate and deliberation. These tended to be the items concerned with either removing or strengthening trade restrictions. Which of these opposing approaches would lead to the best outcomes for the species? Would putting an end to legal exports increase illegal trade?  Or, conversely, would allowing some regulated trade lead to more illegal trade by providing opportunities to hide the illegal amidst the legal? Would incentives for community based conservation be lost if all legal exports were ended, thereby leading to fewer conservation efforts (or support for them)? And if so, would allowing some legal trade be better than none, even for populations threatened with extinction? The truth is no one in that room had definitive answers to these questions. We could muse and hypothesize, but it was only by making decisions and seeing how they play out that we would ever know.  Such is the reality of adaptive management.

When it came to these more contentious issues, the CoP was a meeting of minds with often hugely differing opinions, ranging from people who wanted to end all trade in wildlife and/or wild plants to those seeing sustainable use as the best way forward. At times it would seem as if there was no common ground. But the truly inspiring thing – the thing that gave me shivers as I looked around the meeting rooms – is that everyone was there because of very powerful common ground. No one at the meeting wanted species to go extinct everyone wanted to make sure species are around for a long time to come, indeed forever. The differing opinions were about how best to achieve this goal. When I left for the CoP, I told my 5 year old son that I was going to a meeting where all the world’s countries were coming together to make sure that all the animals and plants around today would be around when he grew up – and I left South Africa still convinced that this is exactly the best way to describe the CoP.  

IUCN delegates at CITES CoP17.  Photo by IUCN SSC

IUCN delegates at CITES CoP17.  Photo by IUCN SSC

The final thing I want to say about my first CoP was that it was an absolute honour to be there representing the IUCN, and working alongside my conservation colleagues from TRAFFIC and WWF. I was frequently overwhelmed by the conservation superpower on our team. I learned so much in conversation with colleagues who had been to many CoPs, and felt hugely supported among peers who were also attending their first CoP. Indeed almost every long day led into a long night of great conversation. That might explain why I am so very tired!!!

At the closing ceremony I learned of an ancient African greeting Ubuntu, which means “I am because you are”. This is a beautiful recognition of the connectedness of all humanity – even among those with differing opinions! But I also consider it to be a most appropriate way to greet the planet that we all call home – after all we – as humans – are only here because of the animals and plants, the water, air, rocks and soil. We are because the earth is. I’m going to nurture that thought as we push forward to CoP18.
Ubuntu.