Being open about the wildlife trade

During an interview in August with Stabroek News, the Chairman of the Private Sector Commis-sion, Mr Gerry Gouveia called for tighter restrictions on the wildlife trade given what was described as its “rampant rape” for commercial purposes.

Mr Gouveia’s concern is based largely on anecdotal evidence. He said he has observed persons doing mass fishing in creeks and rivers and trappers catching various species of animals and this, he contended, was leading to depletion of wildlife. He made the valid point that “we must not only respect our individual diversities in terms of religions and peoples but also respect and conserve our wildlife.” Mr Gouveia also correctly pointed out that the wildlife trade conflicts with the tourism image that the country has been trying to portray and the conservation ethos of the Low Carbon Development Strategy.

In reply to the concerns raised, the Chairman of the Guyana Fauna Exporters Association Inc, Mr Clayton Hall, sought to assuage any fears of rapacious trading. He contended that it was not possible for any excesses to occur in light of the regulations which are in place and the obligations that have to be met under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).
Mr Hall’s defence is understandable but the person in the best position to respond to public concerns about the wildlife trade would be the Head of the Guyana Wildlife Management Authority, Ms Alona Sankar. Ms Sankar has not commented on the report even though invited to do so. She is one of a number of public servants who seem to believe that they are not answerable to the general public but perhaps only to their functional superiors – even on perfunctory matters. This is a malady that will hopefully be cured if Access to Information legislation is ever passed by this government.

It is Ms Sankar’s responsibility and obligation to provide assurances to the public about the proper and sustainable operation of the wildlife trade. Though Mr Hall referred to national regulations and CITES requirements these in of themselves would not be enough. The unsavoury truth is that the wildlife trade has for many years been blighted by corruption and unwholesome practices. Indeed, it was shut down for a period of reorganisation when the PPP/C took office in 1992 and has since seen other scandalous behaviour such as the unlawful export of endangered anteaters, the export of dolphins by an unlicensed presidential advisor and financial shenanigans in the trade which led to the dismissal of employees after audit office investigations.

The point is that notwithstanding the existence of regulations, laws and CITES commitments, malpractice can occur especially when there isn’t effective scrutiny and openness. Moreover, the quotas that are assigned annually to the trade are not intended to be set in stone for life but depend materially on continuous studies of populations to ensure that there is no endangering of numbers.

Complicating matters is the existence of smuggling, cases of which Ms Sankar herself recognized during a seminar in June this year in Georgetown on the illegal wildlife trade. She had said then that while the size of the legal trade was down because of bird flu (psitaccines are a favoured export) and high transportation costs, it was difficult to gauge the extent of the illegal trade. Ms Sankar acknowledged that the wildlife division did not have the mandate or the type of resources for that kind of monitoring. Which is why the concerns raised by Mr Gouveia deserve an authoritative response from those in charge as the tendency has always been to under-allocate resources to police the wildlife trade. During the seminar in June, the Programme Communications Officer with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, James Kinney, made the point that wildlife crime is often not taken seriously by police, customs and judicial authorities and this has led to a lack of investment to support wildlife law enforcement. Interestingly, in 2007, the then Director of the Natural Resources Division of the Environmental Protection Agency, Dr Indrajit Ramdass had spoken about planned, tougher wildlife management and conservation regulations which would carry heavy penalties and would be implemented by this year. The regulations were intended to complement the species protection regulations of 1999 which govern the wildlife trade. It is unclear how far these have progressed. He, too, acknowledged that the EPA did not have the human resources to adequately manage and monitor the conservation and sustainable use of wildlife.

Public information from the local wildlife management authority is sparse and so one has to wonder how much work is being done. At the very least one expects that the wildlife authorities are complying with local law and CITES obligations. Guyana was quite admirably the 33rd signatory to the convention in 1977, and as one of the oldest members one would expect it would also be one of its fittest. Its standing can only be properly judged by what it is actually doing. Article IV of the Convention says that the trade in Appendix II species require the designated scientific authority to monitor export permits granted with a view to taking decisions to ensure the maintenance of that particular species throughout its range at a level consistent with its role in the ecosystem. Where are the regular assessments of these species numbers to inform this decision-making? The CITES Strategic Vision: 2008-13 adopted by the 14th Conference of Parties set an objective that the best available scientific information should be the basis for findings which showed that exports did not have a detrimental impact on species and thereon it set indicators to achieve this, including surveys on population status along with the trends in, and impact of the trade. In conference resolution 14.7, the Conference of Parties further mandated that so-called non-detrimental findings on the export of Appendix II species be reviewed annually. Is this being done?

The last available biennial report on the CITES website for Guyana is for the period ending December 2003. It contained very little information in relation to compliance monitoring and ongoing population surveys. Quite revealing, when the CITES questionnaire asked what was needed to enhance the effectiveness of the implementation of the convention nationally, Guyana cited an increased budget for activities as a high priority. Undoubtedly local authorities are functioning with limited resources but that is never an excuse for not doing what is required under the law and being accountable to the public. Mr Gouveia’s concerns are worthy of a considered response from the wildlife authorities and this could go some way towards being transparent about the wildlife trade.

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