Project Summary

CITES uses a direct listing model – making unrestricted trade the default and listing species seen as endangered from trade for restrictions via the appendices. The direct listing model puts the burden of proof for the (lack of) sustainability of trade in a species or population onto national governments and NGOs. The businesses that profit from the trade are exempt from contributing to the regulatory and enforcement costs, beyond paying a token amount for their CITES permits.

We believe that given the scale of the trade and the rapid decline in wildlife populations, making unrestricted trade the default position is no longer viable. Based on the precautionary principle, the default position today has to be ‘no trade’. This would require changing the articles of the convention to a reverse listing model. Under such a model the burden of proof that trade is compatible with ecologically sustainable use would be on those wishing to trade. A reverse listing mechanism would also allow the inclusion of identification, traceability and verification requirements into individual listings, thereby closing some of the current loopholes used by the illegal trade.

Reverse Listing – The Whole Story

When CITES was set up in 1973/74, it adopted a direct listing model – making unrestricted trade the default and listing species seen as endangered from trade for restrictions via the appendices. At the time the wildlife trade was assumed to be worth around $5bn per year and some 9,000 species of flora and fauna were assumed to be traded. Marine species were not considered to fall under CITES at all.

All of these assumptions are no longer valid today. Both the legal and illegal trade in flora and fauna have grown massively, to $320bn and $100-250bn pa respectively.  Today CITES lists over 35,000 species for trade restrictions on Appendix, I, II and III and it is unknown how many species are being actively traded.

The direct listing model relies on the ability of customs to manage identification and verification of shipments. It also puts the burden of proof for the (lack of) sustainability of trade in a species or population onto national governments and NGOs. The businesses that profit from the trade are exempt from contributing to the regulatory and enforcement costs, beyond paying a token amount for their CITES permits.

We believe that given the scale of the trade and the rapid decline in wildlife populations, making unrestricted trade the default position is no longer viable. Based on the precautionary principle, the default position today has to be ‘no trade’. This would require changing the articles of the convention to a reverse listing model. Under such a model the burden of proof that trade is compatible with ecologically sustainable use (e.g. using the Addis Ababa principles) would be on those wishing to trade. CITES management authorities would set the standards, but businesses would be required to pay for the necessary research. This is the same in other industries that use a reverse listing approach, such as pharmaceuticals, medical implants, aircraft components and pesticides (although it will be mainly importers that pay in the CITES case, not producers).

A reverse listing mechanism would also allow to include identification, traceability and verification requirements into individual listings, thereby closing some of the current loopholes used by the illegal trade. Different degrees of permissible trade can again be managed by having 3 appendices.

Nature Needs More is actively working with CITES signatory countries and NGOs to promote the reverse listing model. In the first instance, we are aiming to get CITES to resolve to create a working group to study our proposal at CoP18.

History of the Reverse Listing Idea

1981 Reverse Listing Proposal

In 1981 Australia submitted a proposal to study the reverse listing model to the 3rd CITES Conference of the Parties in New Delhi. It based this proposal on the insight that for too many species there wasn’t a ‘sufficient level of knowledge, management and control to ensure that the proposed trade will not threaten the species survival’. This same situation persists today, only on a much larger scale. In fact, for the most traded mammal on the planet, the pangolin, we still have next to no knowledge about population sizes, trade volumes and absolutely no management or control.

In addition, the Australian proposal correctly recognised that the continuing addition of species to the appendices under the direct listing model would lead to immense practical difficulties in identification and enforcement at customs, especially given the fact that many species are very similar in appearance and not easy to distinguish.

Whilst Australia’s proposal was adopted, the subsequent study of the reverse listing model did not result in further action. This can be understood based on the Cornell paper from 1982 (see opposite). Looking solely from a 1982 perspective the problems Australia was foreseeing where simply not yet ‘big enough’ to warrant action.

1982 Reverse Listing Paper

In 1982 Martin Ditkof published a paper assessing the Australian reverse listing proposal. His core argument in rejecting the ‘major adjustments’ that would be required to CITES procedures and national implementations was centered around the fact that a lot more species (he estimated 10,000) were being actively traded than being listed for trade restrictions (700 at the time). This to him meant an increase in complexity for no immediate benefit.

While Ditkof acknowledged that the reverse listing approach would shift the burden of proof that a shipment is legal from customs to the exporter/importer, he  asserted that implementing the reverse listing system would not be practical because it would involve listing 9,700 species. Today, CITES maintains that its direct listing system is still practical despite listing over 35,000 species and the burden of proof sitting with customs officials with mostly little or no training in identifying wildlife, plants or derived products.

His primary argument against adopting reverse listing is that changing the convention would not necessarily improve its effectiveness and would divert its limited resources of time and money away from its core objective of protecting species. He is talking about the time and money dedicated to monitoring 700 listed species and the effectiveness of protecting those 700. It should be immediately obvious that this argument works in reverse with 35,000 listed species today.

Advantages & Examples

Advantages of Reverse Listing

  • Based on the Precautionary Principle

  • Burden and cost of proof upfront on those who benefit from trade

  • Delays in listings are not detrimental to species

  • Exporters and importers forced to cooperate with customs

  • Explicit recognition of (ecologically) sustainable use as basis for trade

  • Expands CITES stakeholders to include industry

  • Conditions to prevent the illegal trade can be incorporated into listings

  • Provides option to list at part/product/derivative level

  • Each listing entry can detail identification and verification procedure

Examples of Reverse Listing