My first ever CITES CoP as a Communicator, an Environmentalist, and a West African.

My first ever CITES CoP as a Communicator, an Environmentalist, and a West African.
September 3, 2019 1:05 pm Blog,Uncategorized

In Robert Cialdini’s (Ph.D) book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, he explains the power of reciprocation in advocacy, and brings the common saying, “One good deed deserves another” to life. He gives powerful examples of how people feel obliged to return a favor. Since reading this book about four years ago, I have used some of the behavioral triggers he mentions, including reciprocation, in my work. But never have I seen it being used at such a grand scale as it was at the 18th Conference of Parties for CITES (CITES CoP18) in Geneva, Switzerland. Before getting into that, let me try to summarize what CITES is.

CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. As the name suggests, it deals with regulating the trade in wildlife in 183 member parties (countries and regional unions like the EU). At each of the conferences, Parties discuss, debate, and decide on making amendments to CITES regulations and wildlife protection levels, at times on a species-by-species basis. Sometimes these deliberations come down to votes, and that’s where science, facts, numbers, and, yes, reciprocation, come in.The law of reciprocity basically says that if you do something nice for me, I’ll do something nice for you. You can see how that plays out when votes are involved. It wasn’t always the straightforward “vote for me, I vote for you” way. That was probably the most powerful use of reciprocity at the CoP, but sometimes it involved something more subtle, like an “outside” country publicly endorsing a proposal ahead of the voting stage. Other times, it was a party taking time off their busy schedule to attend the side event of another party. Many times, it was something as simple as giving people souvenirs with a small message to vote in favour of a proposal, or as an invitation to a side event. I never knew souvenirs had this much power until I got here. A stuffed smooth-coated otter—an invitation to a side event—was the first souvenir I received (and, because of the souvenir offering, one of the first side events I attended). Smooth-coated otters are not found anywhere near West Africa, so explain to me why l leapt for joy when news broke that they accepted the proposal to list them under the highest level of protection. That was reciprocity at play. But it wasn’t just a game of gestures. It was a game of numbers as well.

A close-up shot of a stuffed toy giraffe
One of many souvenirs I collected during the side events.


As a fan of numbers, I found it fascinating how statistics were used and manipulated to make cases. An example is at one of the Committee Sessions where South Africa justified their proposal to increase their quota of African lion part exports and trophy hunting with the fact that lion populations in the country had actually increased over the years, a claim which would be interesting if true. And indeed, the claim turned out to be fact. That is, fact until you dig deeper behind the numbers. A quick Google search told me that South Africa’s lion population in captivity had indeed increased, but the lions in the wild decreased over the years. The late Hans Rosling’s book, “Factfulness”, taught me a thing or two about digging behind numbers and putting things into perspective. These were the highlights of my experience as a communicator and a marketer.

A room filled with people viewing a PowerPoint presentation.
A presentation by Interpol during one of the side events. This was about Operation Thunderball, a global scale operation in 2019 which led to several thousands of seizures of illegal wildlife goods.


As an environmentalist with a background in environmental science, the side events felt like going back to school again – but without having to think about writing tests. It was a load of information and perspectives I didn’t know I needed. The side event on giraffe conservation and trade was a notable one, where I learnt about the reproductive process of giraffes and how they influenced a stall in population growth. Another interesting side event was on protecting vultures, and the ecological importance of vultures and other scavengers in reducing the spread of disease. The winner of all side events for me was our own event on harnessing tools and technologies for wildlife law enforcement, where a co-partner (APOPO) shared snippets of how African giant pouched rats were being trained to sniff out illegal wildlife goods at ports of entry and exit. It was just as cool as it sounds.

People viewing a PowerPoint presentation.
Presentation by APOPO during our side event on harnessing tools and technologies for wildlife law enforcement.


As a proud West African, it was beautiful watching ECOWAS member states harmonizing their voices to co-submit and win proposals to increase protection for wildlife such as the giraffe, black-crowned crane, wedgefish, giant guitarfish, teatfish, and mako shark. It was insightful hearing their strong opinions against the down-listing of the southern white rhino in Namibia and Eswatini. I learnt a lot about non-detriment findings and how they were essentially the basis and justification of the legal wildlife trade market. Non-detriment findings are conclusions by scientific authorities to prove that the export of specimens of a species will have no negative impact on the survival of the species in their natural habitat.

Through the West African parties, I heard stories of how the legal trade in some species served as a smoke-screen for the illegal trade in that same species, according to biodiversity threats assessments conducted in some of these countries. This was my first ever CITES CoP, but according to people with multiple experiences, this was the first time West Africa had such a vocal presence. This was the first time they pushed back with such force on the down-listing of certain species of concern, like the African Elephant. To risk making the worst attempt at wordplay ever, I’d say that West African countries put the ECOWAS in eco wars. I’d be surprised if this line makes it past the editors.

The willpower of the West Africans was surreal and exciting. It makes me anticipate what comes next. From the training of wildlife professionals across the region, through the finalization of the West African Strategy to Combat Wildlife Crime in the coming months, to the training programs for airport staff and customs officials in West Africa coming up, I am optimistic that all these parts and more will come together to ensure that natural resources are protected, restored, and used sustainably, within the region and on the continent. If I am lucky enough to attend the next conference, I hope to hear stories on exponential progress in that regard. Expect a Part II of this post if that happens.

A person standing on a footbridge.
Me, stopping to take a picture on my way to the conference centre.


By Edudzi Nyomi,

Communications Specialist for the West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WA BiCC) Program.


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