On the horns of Ahe rhino

  • 14/07/1997

Using trade as a weapon has always resulted in giving the big, the strong and the rich, a whip which can be used to brutalise the small, the weak and the poor. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is just one more such weapon in the hands of the industrialised North. Therefore the very premise on which it is based is incorrect, more so when we talk in global terms. When we speak of issues in a global perspective it is meant to imply that nations are involved in an effort to save the globe as equal partners and not as unequal ones.

By policing only the weak and the underdeveloped, CITES smacks of being promoted by people whose ethics can be questioned and who do not believe in the concept that all humans are equal, regardless of their race, colour of skin, level of affluence or nationality.

To be morally acceptable CITES should be a weapon which even the poor and the weak can use against the big and the rich. For that it requires considerable redrafting. In its present state all that CITES does is give the US the right to be a global policeperson and force conservation down the throats of nations more interested in sustainable development and the upliftment of their population from the vicious quagmire of poverty and underdevelopment.

What has CITES achieved till date? Has it worked or has it failed to work? The present status is that despite CITES or inspite of it, the trade in wildlife exists. It is second only to the trade in narcotics. The illegal trade in wildlife according to a report published in 1994 by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) (CITES enforcement not extinction) has a phenomenal turnover of US $5 billion annually. Which only goes to show how effective CITES really is?

While it sounds very moral and ethical to preach conservation in international fora, world leaders and activists who mouth such platitudes conveniently fail to take into account the economic costs of such conservation efforts. While no one denies that an international mechanism is needed to support conservation, it is also obvious that someone has to pay for this conservation effort, for conservation does not come free or even cheaply.

If the tiger is to be saved for European conservationists, poor countries like Bangladesh and India will have to maintain enforcement squads to check poaching, to compensate farmers who may lose their crop to herbivores that constitute the tigers foodbase and to force their poor, already living on the fringes of the environment to live under the threat of the tiger. Would a citizen of the US or a European, who wishes to see the tiger and the rhino saved, be willing to leave the safe confines of New York or some super-rich European capital, to come and live in a village where his children perforce have to collect firewood from the jungle and may occasionally have to play musical chairs with tigers and hostile forest managers bent upon conservation.

Is it not therefore high time that the us and the Europeans paid to save the tiger, the rhino and the elephant, rather than thinking in terms of arm twisting African and Asian nations.

However, when we speak of the US it is important to note that the US did not hesitate to pick on a weak country like Taiwan and threatened trade sanctions against it when the EIA of the UK, blamed it for trade in rhino parts, but skillfully skirted the issue when it came to dealing with China, another international bully, also held guilty of the same trade by the EIA. Therefore USA clearly weighs its own economic interests when it becomes the world's conservation policeperson.

Therefore the garb of morality and ethics which surrounds CITES, conceal a tremendous power play.

The pioneers when they came to the US or the wild west as it was then called, wiped out the buffalo from the prairies, even the American Indian has become an endangered species today being confined to reservations, a term that sounds startlingly like reserves. European villagers do not rub shoulders with large carnivores and elephants do not raid their crops.

Today if they wish to preserve the exotic species of Asia and Africa then they should be prepared for a trade off in monetary terms.

The exploding of a transformer in New Delhi on June 13 which led to a fire in a cinema hall which claimed sixty lives has a message in itself Indians have not demanded that transformers all over the nation be banned, for the simple reason that they provide electricity to meet Indian domestic and commercial power requirements. There is a trade off. Therefore, if the tiger, the rhino and the elephant were to pay for their keep, Asians and Africans might be willing to undertake the risks of keeping them for the sake of the world. While this would not be an ideal situation it would definitely be a moral situation.

India should seek the scrapping of CITES as it exists today, rather than have 250 misguided Members of Parliament (MPs) signing declarations in favour of bans under CITES.

This very act of these MPs puts a question mark on their understanding of the issues involved and their belief in the basic equality of humankind. These MPs are clearly unethical persons who merely wish to give the US an international weapon with which to flog the poor of the world

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