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CITES COP17 on African soil turns spotlight on continent’s Big Five animals

September 24, 2016 - SOUTH AFRICA

The biennial Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meets in Johannesburg with the aim of preventing endangered species from being hunted and traded into extinction.

The location spotlights the particular plight of Africa's big five - lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. Disputes about their numbers complicate a mission to move some or all to the Endangered Species List. They won the big five distinction as the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot.

The Born Free conservation organization notes that international wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars annually and includes hundreds of millions of plants and animals that are traded as pets, ornamental plants and wood products, food, leather, tourist curios, trophies and medicines. CITES, with 181 parties to the Convention, accords varying degrees of protection to more than 30,000 species of animals and plants that are threatened by overexploitation.

The counts and counting methods for all species promises to feature on the COP17 agenda, with particular reference to the big five. Indisputable evidence that new births in some or all of the five are unable to keep pace with the killings might see them assigned to the Endangered List, but the numbers are hard to come by. The logistics of counting such wide-ranging beasts on a vast continent and of counting the animals slaughtered for trade are stumbling blocks.

Habitat destruction, human-animal conflict, civil unrest, hunting and poaching threaten the big five. The mass slaughter by poachers to supply the ivory and horn market adds particular pressure to the populations of African elephants and rhinos. CITES laws have not closed all the loopholes to the trade, and the mass killings of both animals make frequent headlines. As reported by National Geographic in Oct 2014, one of the largest mass elephant slaughters in decades took place in Bouba Ndjidah National Park, Cameroon, in 2012. Armed with grenades and AK-47s, poachers killed more than 300. Britain's Guardian newspaper reported in May 2015 that rhino poaching in South Africa was at record levels following an18 percent rise in killings.

Enforcement is often impossible, even where a species has some level of protection; insurgencies and shortfalls in funding or political will compound myriad other obstacles.

Such slaughters have become commonplace headlines and are likely to be enumerated at COP17. The question is whether they will win protection for Africa's big five.


The Big Five

Species directory

African Lions Face Extinction by 2050, Could Gain Endangered Species Act Protection (Scientific American Oct 2014)

Rhino poaching in South Africa at record levels following 18% rise in killings (Guardian 10 May 2015)

Date written/update: 2015-10-28