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When a polar bear rug is a slap in the face of species conservation

March 25, 2010

The last few years have witnessed some interesting twists and turns in the international wildlife conservation and protection field. With the outcomes of the  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting this week, it seem the economics of foreign affairs is winning – that a polar bear skin is worth more to Governments than protecting wildlife where they live.

This is of course not new, nor news. It is fairly common for people working in the conservation movement to speak of ‘bad times’, ‘serious threats’, ‘loosing the battle’ and ‘running out of time’, but these past eighteen months have left us wondering what could be next?

For me this shift became obvious and tangible in December 2008 when Governments attending one of the two UN treaties specifically about wildlife – the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) – ushered in a dramatic withdrawal of investment in concrete conservation action. By anyone’s accounting, the necessary budget provided by Governments for CMS to carry out its existing workload, let alone increase its conservation efforts, was slashed.

To give some context, earlier that same year the Government of Mexico announced that they had invested nearly €15 million to save the critically endangered vaquita from becoming extinct. Only 150 animals remain in the small area of the Mar de Cortés. An important step from one country to save one species. We saw it as a good omen, and with Mexico’s good news in hand we optimistically set our sights on the CMS meeting.  So, it was profound indeed when Governments at the CMS meeting, overtly lead by European countries, committed the paltry sum of only €170,000 for conservation projects intended to safeguard the fate of over 300 listed species and populations around the world. At the close of the meeting, Nicolas Entrup of WDCS, called it “… a slap in the face of the future of species conservation.” He was right. He didn’t know it then, but he was also prophetic. Our face was about to become very sore.

Since that meeting regional agreements for whales, dolphins and porpoises have made few tangible conservation commitments; instead focusing sometimes almost ‘spiritually’ on matters of budget and administration. The same appears to be the case for bats and birds. The last meeting on elephants at least concluded a list of conservation projects, but no funding was secured for them either.

Then of course we all witnessed the rise and fall of the Climate Change talks in Copenhagen. So focused were negotiators on the technicalities of reducing emissions, any discussion about the impacts of climate change on wildlife was simply crammed into the so-called REDD agenda (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), but even in this they feel short. The sad and sorry Copenhagen Accord, a document essentially about our global economic system, does not even utter the words ‘wildlife’, ‘nature’ or even the more clinical ‘biodiversity’.  The slaps were mounting up, and welts started forming on our cheeks.

Then mere weeks ago we all reeled in our seats when the slaps became a punch. Governments were seriously negotiating a deal, behind closed doors, to recommence whaling. Although at odds with their own elected populations, a number of anti-whaling Governments seem to believe it is appropriate to legitimize commercial whaling by suspending the commercial whaling moratorium for a decade. The Independent in the UK is calling it “the great betrayal” and I agree.

And as if our face was not battered enough, this past week we have watched sensible proposals to increase the protection of polar bears, bluefin tuna and two species of sharks topple at the other UN treaty specifically for wildlife – CITES.  Jeff Flocken, a member of the Polar Bear Coalition, said “Parties had an opportunity to take action to save more than 3,000 polar bears from commercial trade over the next decade yet they turned their backs. In years to come, people will look back on this moment with great shame.”

So it is with some trepidation, we turn on our seat to look the next meeting in the eyes. It will be the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission in June where the whaling deal will come out from behind closed doors, and we will all see what has been negotiated across the table of wildlife diplomacy.  The Independent’s Michael McCarthy has said “should the [whaling] deal go ahead, it would as big a failure for wildlife protection as December’s Copenhagen conference was for action on climate change.”

Behind this deal, like all the other performances of the past eighteen months, the economics of foreign affairs is delivering the blows. Call me a reckless, with a face bashed and bruised, but I can not help but ask if this trend truly reflects the will of the people? Do we really value wildlife so little, or do our un-elected government officials just believe we value economics more.

Then again, it is of course easier to please existing Treasury officials than it is to look your grandchildren’s children in the eye.


Cross posted on WDCS From the Front Line

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