Sustainability Corner: The quest for Sustainable Environmental Protection

Sustainability Corner: The quest for Sustainable Environmental Protection
Romein VAN STADEN, Ebenezer ASUMANG& Juan Manuel Sabio Morchio
  • “It is our collective and individual responsibility, to preserve and tend to the world in which we all live” – Dalai Lama
  • Introduction

It may be tough to fathom, but we humans are directly and indirectly responsible for the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, we’re at fault for this chaos. But could we have known what a profound outcome our actions and, at times, inaction would have on the world, our livelihood, and life as we have known it thus far? We have all probably noticed that things have changed fast in the past two years.

We, as humans, have a long history of trying to control and dominate nature rather than living harmoniously with it, resulting in the creation of many destructive forces. One such force is our interaction and interplay with wildlife and plant life and its regulation. The coronavirus pandemic was a shock, but it wasn’t unforeseeable. Over the past 50 years, there has been a fourfold increase in diseases passed from animals to humans. Primary reasons include deforestation and the general loss of biodiversity due to human activity.

The spread of zoonotic diseases between animals and humans can ultimately halt the three sustainability pillars. The complete disregard for nature and the relentless illegal trade in wild animals, and the loss of biodiversity have threatened the survival of species and humankind as a whole. Social equity, economic feasibility, and environmental protection make up the Principle of Sustainable Development DNA. It is the interconnectedness and harmony amongst these three crucial elements that are proving very hard to balance.

In this regard, one would inevitably ponder what has been done to address this issue sustainably. In addition, it would be prudent to reflect on an international legal instrument adopted, CITES, and ascertain the level of protection to mother nature. Has complacency and negligence finally caught up with us?

International legal instrument – how are fauna and flora regulated?

On March 2, 1973, representatives from 80 countries agreed on the text of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, commonly known as ‘CITES’, and on 1 July 1975, it entered into force.

CITES aims primarily to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of any species being traded. According to the degree of protection they need, the species covered by CITES are listed in three Appendices (I, II, and III). [1]

With over 40 years in retrospection, the need for CITES has always been not only essential but of utmost necessity because it is estimated that the international trade in wildlife (from both fauna and flora) is worth billions of dollars annually. Moreover, the trade is relatively diverse, ranging from live animals and plants to a vast array of wildlife-derived products from them, including food products, exotic leather goods, wooden musical instruments, timber, tourist curios, and medicines.

It is vital that to prevent further biodiversity degradation, combat climate change, and prevent future pandemics, changes must occur at all levels of society. This must be achieved utilizing two approaches, namely a top-down and bottom-up approach. A top-down approach happens when states pass legally binding laws to protect species further. A bottom-up approach occurs when society is first informed of the illegal wildlife and plants trade consequences. Secondly, through behavioral changes, the demand for wildlife and its products decreases.

Is CITES enough? The need for change

In short and as expected, the answer is no. Currently, there is no global agreement for combatting wildlife crime. CITES is almost half a century old, and its existence only regulates the international wildlife trade. It only considers biological risks to a species’ survival and does not consider human or animal health risks.

The ideology discussed by John Scanlon of opting for a ‘One Health’ approach is simply brilliant. This would regulate wildlife trade and consider the biological impacts on human and animal health. Unfortunately, CITES’ member states remain wary of expanding the treaty’s mandate to include human and animal health criteria. Nevertheless, the global health community proposes another approach to form legally binding commitments in an international pandemics treaty to prevent the spillover of viruses and other pathogens from wild animals to people. However, this is still to be seen as economic considerations have always had a strong influence on decision-making.

It has become evident that even though the environment should be the principal priority in addressing biodiversity conservation and therefore prevent future pandemics, economic considerations seem to overtake the main objective of the international instruments addressing such issues. This can be attributed to the fact that no Party to CITES would be willing to spend large amounts of money if such contributions are likely to affect their economies. In other words, lack of political will and international cooperation prevent a high degree of success when attempting to enforce international agreements.

Furthermore, wildlife crime does endanger human health, but it also comes at a financial cost. The World Bank estimates that illicit wildlife trafficking and the impacts of these crimes on ecosystems cost the global economy a staggering $1-2 trillion annually.

An international agreement on wildlife trafficking has been publicly endorsed by the presidents of Costa Rica and Gabon. It would be the first time a crime significantly impacting the environment is embedded into the international criminal law framework if adopted. In addition, it has become evident that wildlife crime countries (being composed of supply, transit, and demand countries) can benefit financially in the short term. This, however, is not sustainable.

This shows the lack of commitment from the countries involved. It seems as if no matter what catastrophic consequences society might continue to face, economic stability and economic considerations seem to be the main items on these countries’ agendas.

Time to face the music – what does the future hold?

The question remains, was the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis inevitable? First, it has to be admitted that while wildlife trade has become a common commodity, its complete elimination is virtually impossible. This has to be accepted, and states must work around such facts. Hopefully, by the adoption and subsequent ratification of CITES, what has to be agreed upon is a global commitment by both developed and developing countries with strict trade and protection of species at its core.

In this light, if biodiversity-rich countries continue to provide an unlimited supply of wildlife to the rest of the world, it is indeed correct to assume that sooner rather than later, extinction of such species will not only become a possibility but rather a fact. Nevertheless, success always comes at a high price, and the price to pay shall not be in a known currency nor a quantified amount. Instead, its price would be the deprivation of future generations from knowing the environment as we know it today. So, the challenge for people will be to learn to live in this new normal and the new climate it brings.

As humans, we’re part of the natural world, and we depend on on our earth not just for the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink, but also for the resources that power our ways of life. Unfortunately, we’re presently changing the earth on an unparalleled scale and changing its every corner to our demands, and this takes away from its ability to meet our needs. If we continue to thrive here, much work and ingenuity are needed to avoid more destruction and undo the damage we’ve already done. Unfortunately, there is undeniable evidence that the illegal wildlife and plants trade has an unintended and deadly impact on nature and human life.

As evident as it may seem, we must introduce stricter regulations on the trade of wildlife and plants and, at the very least, educate ourselves on their harmful impact. The coronavirus pandemic has affected every aspect of the modern world. Countries have gone into lockdown, businesses have faced enormous challenges, and many have lost their lives, but the illegal wildlife and plants trade has continued unabated. But the upheaval caused by COVID-19 can also be viewed as an opportunity – a unique moment that could allow us to reset many aspects of the modern world more sustainably. And the question remains, how will we adapt ourselves to the new nature and surroundings we’re creating, and what does the future holds for us?

Lastly, we have the power to determine what our natural world will look like in the future. But we will have to think collectively about how we want to preserve our existing fauna and flora.


John Scanlon on the Case for Criminalizing Wildlife Trafficking under International Law

“South Africa : Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).” MENA Report, Albawaba (London) Ltd., Sept. 2016, p. n/a.

Vince, Gaia (2014): Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet we made. Milkweed Editions.

 About the Writers:

Romein is a (self-confessed) Pan-Africanist by heart. His diversified professional career spans many different sectors, i.e., local government, mining, consultancy, construction, advertising, and development cooperations.. Contact him via ([email protected])

Ebenezer ASUMANG, is a Development Communication Specialist, MSME & SDG Enthusiast, Finance & Investment Nomad and a WriterPreneur. He`s Country Director (Ag) of PIRON Global Development GmbH, Ghana (   Contact him via ([email protected])

 Juan is an Environmental Lawyer based in Bonn, Germany. His work focuses on environmental crimes such as illegal wildlife trade, illegal logging,  illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and the associated illicit financial flows.

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