Over the next 12 days, thousands of conservationists and top government officials will thrash out international trade regulations aimed at protecting different species.
A booming illegal wildlife trade has put huge pressure on an existing treaty signed by more than 180 countries — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
And the plight of Africa’s elephants, targeted for their tusks, generated fierce debate as the talks kicked off.
Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa and Namibia castigated Western-based animal charities, saying they “dictated” on how African resources should be managed.
“Please leave us alone, don’t just come and dictate what we should be doing,” Zambian Tourism Minister Stephen Mwansa said.
Fortune Charumbira, head of Zimbabwe’s traditional chiefs, blasted “elitist NGOs who are coming from countries where there are no animals”, describing them as “domineering”.
A coalition of 29 African countries is pressing for a total halt to the ivory trade to curb poaching of elephants, but other delegates believe it would only fuel illegal trading.
A recent census showed a 30 per cent decline in the Savannah elephant population over seven years, and new data released by wildlife monitor TRAFFIC on Saturday showed a “rising trend in large raw ivory shipments” in 2015.
TRAFFIC’s executive director Steven Broad said the new data showed governments needed “to redouble their efforts to bring the illegal ivory trade firmly under control”.
Ginette Hemley, who is heading the World Wildlife Fund delegation to the talks, described the data as “extremely worrying”.
Illegal wildlife trade worth $26b each year
CITES forbids trade in elephant ivory, but Namibia and Zimbabwe have made a proposal asking for permission to sell off stockpiles to raise funds for local communities that co-exist with the animals.
The European Union said it would support a continuation of the ban on international trade in ivory and press for the adoption of strong measures against ivory trafficking, as well as trafficking affecting rhinoceroses, tigers, great apes, pangolins and rosewood.
Illegal trade in wildlife is valued at about $US20 billion ($26 billion) a year, according to CITES.
South African President Jacob Zuma opened the talks with a warning of the dire consequences of failing to tackle the demand for elephant ivory, rhino horn and hundreds of other endangered wild animals and plants.
“Levels of exploitation of some animal and plant species are high and the trade is capable of heavily depleting their populations and even bringing some species close to extinction,” Mr Zuma said.
CITES’ secretary general John Scanlon said the meeting would “review trade controls of close to 500 species of wild animals and plants”, including the rhino, the pangolin and the silky shark.
And while Mr Scanlon hailed the deep commitment of all those taking part, he warned “they sometimes have differing views on the best way to achieve this”.
Rhino poaching driven by Asian demand
CITES banned trade in rhino horns 40 years ago, but prohibition has not reduced illicit hunting, which has seen a recent boom in South Africa.
About 5,000 white rhino — a quarter of the population — have been slaughtered over the past eight years, with the majority killed in South Africa, home to 80 per cent of the world’s rhino.
Rhino poaching is driven by insatiable demand in Vietnam and China for the horn, which is mistakenly believed to have medicinal powers curing everything from hangovers to cancer.
But China is now taking steps to clamp down on domestic demand for ivory, Mr Scanlon said.
He warned illegal wildlife trafficking was “occurring on an industrial scale, driven by transnational organised criminal groups”.