CITES Master’s Graduates Chart a Path Toward Regional Collaboration

CITES Master’s Graduates Chart a Path Toward Regional Collaboration
January 29, 2020 2:46 pm News

By Chaz Kyser, WA BICC Communications Manager


The West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change Program (WA BiCC) organized a vibrant exchange on “Knowledge Products and Lessons from CITES Master’s Training and Research in West and Central Africa,” held in Accra Jan. 23–24. Not only did the gathering succeed in bringing WA BiCC-supported CITES MSc graduates together, but also their colleagues in the CITES Management Authorities in the region with whom day-to-day teamwork is a fundamental element of success. The event was an opportunity to share successes and challenges and to highlight the power these graduates and their colleagues collectively have to affect real change in conservation efforts throughout West Africa, which is much needed in a region considered as a hub for illegal trade in wildlife.

The 22 CITES graduates attending the event hailed from 13 countries, with an additional four unable to attend. Together they represented two cohorts of West African (26) and Central African (4) wildlife and/or forestry experts who were sponsored between 2016 and 2018 to attend the University of Andalucía/Spain’s one-of-a-kind training focused on CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The master’s program, formally known as the “Management and Conservation of Species in Trade: The International Framework,” provides specialized training on the scientific bases, techniques and instruments that enable CITES implementation and compliance to strengthen the fight against illegal trade of animal and plant species and/or their parts. The former students, now MSc recipients, were sponsored by WA BiCC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) Environment Directorate.

Prior to 2016, only one West African student, from Nigeria, had gone through the training. Michael Balinga, WA BiCC’s Biodiversity Conservation Specialist, was instrumental in launching this novel initiative on a tip from a colleague from the USFWS, leading to an additional 26 West African students completing the program. As part of this effort, WA BiCC collaborated with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) West Africa Program to ensure students were positioned to excel. Experience has shown that oftentimes students are sent to earn degrees abroad and that is the end of the story. A new precedent was forged in this case. Through a grant to IUCN, students were provided with additional resources, including formal supervisors, seed funding for thesis research, and mentoring by subject matter specialists. Interpreters were also provided for the French-speaking students, something that had never been done before in the university’s 23-year history of hosting this course.

A man holding a microphone.
Michael Balinga- Biodiversity Conservation Specialist for WA BiCC.


“We now have not only a library of information on CITES-related topics, but a cadre of experts as well to coordinate or support various capacity-building, policy development and enforcement processes moving forward,” stressed Balinga.

In addition to the graduates, CITES Focal Points and representatives from IUCN, ECOWAS, USFWS and USAID/West Africa participated in the event, held at the Holiday Inn and facilitated by Emelia Arthur.

Over the two days, the graduates discussed the huge impact completing the CITES program had in both their professional and personal lives. While all were already working in conservation to some degree, which was one of the selection criteria to enroll in the course, the master’s program provided them with additional the expertise and skills to be leaders in effective CITES implementation in West Africa.

“In 5 years, I see myself as one of the best female advocates on CITES that my country, Ghana, has ever had . . . making sure CITES awareness creation is at its peak and pushing for the CITES legislation to be adopted in parliament so that Ghana can move from Category 3 to 1 on CITES,” said Mercy Koomson, a 2018 CITES graduate and Wildlife Manager at Ghana’s Kotoka International Airport, referencing the scale by which CITES compliance is measured, with 1 being the best.

Bintu Sia Foray-Musa, a 2016 graduate and Conservation Officer for Sierra Leone’s National Protected Areas Authority, also expects to be a change agent “leading an expert team of professionals energized and passionate to act for combating wildlife trafficking at the sub region.”

Other goals of the event were to identify processes and products from the CITES students’ research and agree on next steps for the graduates and other conservation professionals as the WA BiCC program draws to an end.

Key sessions/highlights of the workshop included presentations of a reference document that synthesized all of the theses completed over the past 4 years and was organized into focal thematic areas. After the presentations, participants shared their own views and experiences. Additional discussions focused on graduates’ professional work since completing training; the current status of CITES in the region; and the pressing need for a network of graduates and their peers to keep the information flowing on best practices, emerging approaches and new threats.

Groups of people seated around tables.
Group engagements.


Given the enthusiasm for such a network, tentatively called the “West Africa CITES Expert Network,” the program could well be the spark to long-lasting collaboration between these graduates-turned-leaders in combatting wildlife crime and championing conservation.

“I find the idea of a regional CITES expert network to be very exciting and I think it could grow into an extremely powerful group,” remarked Yula Kapetanakos, Combating Wildlife Trafficking Senior Analyst for the USFWS. “It could leverage more expertise, more funding resources, more knowledge sharing, and ultimately the outcome could be some really strong conservation success.”

Graduates and key stakeholders applauded WA BiCC for making the event possible.

“This workshop was a good framework for exchange and sharing of experiences between students, their supervisors, WA BiCC and partners,” said Senyi Abdoul-Aziz, a 2016 graduate from Niger, who serves as his country’s Program Officer for the Directorate of Wildlife, Hunting, Parks and Reserves.

Timothy Daniel John, a 2018 CITES graduate, the Head of Wildlife and now the CITES Focal Point for Nigeria, agrees.


“What I appreciate most in this workshop is the fact that participants are really passionate about the work they are doing in their various countries. You can see this with the rapt attention, intelligent contributions, and graduates’ coming up with ideas on how to move the work forward,” John said.


A key message stressed by partners and donors is the lasting impact CITES graduates are expected to make in West Africa and beyond. Daniel Moore, USAID’s West Africa Mission Director, called them “the current generation of wildlife crime fighters and CITES enforcers.”

In his closing statement about the conference, IUCN Arsene Sanon, Acting Regional Coordinator for the Protected Areas and Biodiversity Programme at IUCN, echoed this sentiment.

“I wish to see these champions motivated and encouraged in their home countries. When we already have a weapon of this kind, we have a 50 percent solution to our problems,” he said.

A group of people chatting.
Workshop participants interacting.

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