Whilst it has been known in academic and conservation circles for decades that the trade data CITES collects is deeply flawed, the new CITES Tradeview website will make it easy for activists, who are more likely to be driving for real change, to be able to access any proof they need to demonstrate just how flawed the legal trade monitoring system is. In that sense, the fact that the new CITES Wildlife TradeView website makes accessing the trade data easier is a huge step forward. The next logical step would be to fix the data collection issues that have plagued CITES for decades.
Nature Needs More has extensively written about the need for all 183 signatory countries to move to electronic permits. This would reduce the many data quality issues associated with the 1970s paper permits. It will not stop all fraud and mislabeling, but it will make it harder, given most electronic permit systems have multiple levels of approval and an audit trail. The cost of doing so is in the region of US$3omillion to complete the global roll out.
For those countries which cannot afford the US$150,000 themselves, the recent CITES standing committee has prepared a draft decision for CoP19 that encourages them to approach donor countries for funding. It specifically states:
Nature Needs More encourages any CITES signatory, that is classed as a developing country to approach all the wealthy CITES signatory countries and ask them to cover the cost of implementing ePermits on your behalf. Over the years, we are over listening to government officials, in these wealthy CITES countries, say, we can’t just offer, we need to be asked. The CITES draft decision provides the trigger to ask for donations. Don’t wait until CITES CoP 19, just go-for-it now!
Fixing the deeper flaws that make reconciliation between imports and exports currently impossible requires more than moving to electronic permits. CITES does not mandate import permits for Appendix II listed species which are traded commercially, which helps wealthy countries (industries and businesses) maintain a level of plausible deniability about the scale of the legal trade in endangered species. Currently, the reporting of import data is voluntary.
Pushing major import countries to adopt mandatory import permits and reporting would go a long way towards fixing the present mismatches. Further, CITES export permits only record the ‘maximum permitted’ quantity for export, not what is actually exported. This means integration with the customs acquittal process needs to become standard for all countries, if we want to get reliable trade data.
It should be in the interest of the large businesses that are trading in CITES listed species to bolster their sustainability claims by supporting the move to more reliable trade data. Some of the major trades under CITES, such as the python trade, have been controversial for decades because the data situation is so unreliable (as are population estimates). Yet this trade is immensely profitable and the companies making the shoes, jackets, purses and handbags from python skins are some of the most profitable in the world.
If they genuinely believe their own push towards sustainability, why won’t they invest in fixing some of the basics of data collection?