If we are concerned with the interconnections between power, place, and imagination then we can and indeed should reflect on the geopolitics of extinction.
We might focus on where people and animals have been targeted for deliberate extinction either through acts of genocide and/or colonial settlement. In the 19th century, the native population of Tasmania, the Palawa, was decimated by contact with British and European sealers and later settlers.
Human colonisation and population growth, meanwhile, are the single biggest factors in non-human extinction. Hunting, logging, construction, settlement, farming, and over-exploitation in general continue to have devastating consequences and geopolitical projects played their part in disturbing, poisoning, and exploiting environments. As empires and nation-states expanded their resource remit and sovereign authority, native animal and plant species were in some cases simply destroyed.
The transition between species being ‘endangered’ to ‘at risk’ pivots around exploitation, hunting and trading. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), negotiated in 1963 and entered into force in 1973, remains a significant element in the battle to prevent further extinction. The Convention was visionary for the time, as it was not clear even by the 1960s that commercial hunting was a serious issue and that the wildlife trade was involved in trading networks embracing furniture, curios, exotic goods, and traditional medicines. Around 35,000 species of animals and plants are listed under the CITES agreement, and states have to adopt domestic legislation to ensure that its provisions are respected.
“Given that CITES two-thirds approval ruling, there is always plenty of scope for parties to lobby others”
The CITES Conference of Parties (COPs) can be controversial. What is often at stake is a decision about whether a particular species should be moved between Appendix I and Appendices II and III. Anything listed in Appendix I is considered most at risk, potentially with extinction, and commercial trade is thus banned. Most of the species listed in CITES are found in Appendix II, meaning that the trade in these fauna and flora needs to be monitored in order to ensure that they do not become endangered.
Currently, there are 182 parties to CITES with the few exceptions including North Korea and South Sudan. Any amendment to Appendices I and II requires a two-thirds majority approval at a meeting of the conference of the parties while any change to Appendix III requires a formal communication to the relevant parties.
Given that two-thirds approval ruling, there is always plenty of scope for parties to lobby others. Sometimes the lobbying is directed towards promoting a particular action and on other occasions it might involve persuading a particular party to desist with a proposed amendment. When Kenya tried in 2004 to get lions upgraded to Appendix I, other countries with lions living in their territory opposed it, arguing there was insufficient knowledge about population numbers. Trophy hunting was cited as a major concern for the future wellbeing of lions and other countries such as neighbouring Tanzania were reluctant to interfere with that lucrative trade.
Over the intervening period, conservationists have argued that countries such as Botswana, Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe have also been slow to act on the illegal trade in rhino and elephant ivory again because of the lucrative nature of hunting, especially involving North American clients and the smuggling economies that sustain illegal exports markets in East Asia.
“Any declaration regarding endangerment and extinction might carry with it profound sensitivities regarding how local communities are treated in a global context of nature conservation”
Where there is money involved, it is fair to conclude that national and regional level politics also gets distorted. In January 2016, the 66th meeting of the standing committee of CITES concluded that other parties such as Nigeria and Angola had failed to submit progress reports on how they were addressing the illegal ivory trade in their countries. China is a major buyer of Angolan ivory. Avoiding extinction, therefore, is never just about having worthy conservation plans. There are powerful financial and political interests at stake.
Certain species such as elephants, lions and bears tend to grab global attention, and the commercial trade in ivory is probably the most discussed. But some COPs complain that countries with elephant populations are not submitting progress on what are described as National Ivory Action Plans, or shutting down domestic markets in ivory.
By listing a species as being at risk of extinction, one raises a host of potentially troubling issues. Any declaration regarding endangerment and extinction might carry with it profound sensitivities regarding how local communities are treated in a global context of nature conservation. Other activities such as poaching and its relationship to ivory are also highly emotive, with poorer countries in the world bearing the brunt of a poaching economy that is embedded in global exchange and luxury markets. Nature conservation is expensive, time-consuming and often dangerous.
We need to be aware that extinction carries with it geopolitical risk. Human activity has caused ecological, commercial and site-specific extinctions, and both land and marine environments continue to bear a heavy price for resource exploitation, population growth and commercial gain. There is certainly no room for complacency.
This was published in the September 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.