This lack of a mandated Enforcement Authority is key reason why the legal and illegal trade are so intertwined that they are functionally inseparable. The lack of a mandatory enforcement authority has also enabled overexploitation in the legal trade and industrial scale of wildlife crime.
While corporate conservation and key players, significantly the ex-Secretary General of CITES, John Scanlon, generate a lot of energy going on-and-on about the illegal trade, they clinically side-step the fact that they have allowed the ridiculous situation, that an Enforcement Authority is optional, to remain. No wonder that the CITES convention is often termed a ‘toothless tiger’ regulator. Just because the original, 1975, convention didn’t mandate an enforcement authority, there is no excuse for not correcting this gaping oversight anytime in the last 46 years. To quote Temon, from the Lion King, “and we are all ok with this?”.
Our supporters already know how Nature Needs More feels about the fact that CITES has completely missed the digital revolution and is still using the 1970s paper-based systems to manage the legal trade.
What this means is that more is known about illicit trafficking flows than legal trade supply chains; business, industries and investors making huge profits from this trade should be deeply ashamed of this. Public and private philanthropic funding has been made available to build systems to track illegal trade routes while the legal trade supply chains remain opaque and there is no legal trade analytics.
Maybe this is the reason Scanlon appears confident to continue discussing the illegal trade in pangolins, for example, because it is easier to get information on the illegal trade. He consistently fails to mention that the problems associated with the decline of pangolins became entrenched long before 2016, while all five pangolin species were still listed on Appendix II.
Pangolin populations were recognised as declining due to the legal trade in the 1990s, resulting in CITES placing zero export quotas on the pangolin trade in 2000. No one at CITES apparently saw the need to question or explain why permits for international, commercial trade in these specimens were still issued post 2000. Is it because they were drowning in legal trade paper permits or the fact that permit data only needs to be submitted to the CITES trade database annually? There are no penalties for late submissions and some countries take 2-3 years to submit permit data to the CITES trade database. And, CITES is such an impoverished regulator that there are no resources available to join the ‘legal trade data dots’.
In the end, the CITES Secretariat can only do what the signatory parties enable it to do. And it is the wealthy countries and regions of the world, where the importing businesses and key consumers reside, who must step up and provide the resources required to make this legal trade transparent; they are the key beneficiaries.
It is evident the volume and value of this legal trade has changed over recent decades. In 1981, six years after CITES came into force, only 700 species were listed for trade restrictions, now it is close to 40,000. In reality, it would be many more but for the fact it takes on average 12 years for a species to be listed for CITES trade restrictions, once it is identified as at risk as a result of its commercialisation.
Why do CITES signatory countries appear so concerned about the convention being opened for a strategic review? What is voiced is that they are worried that this will provide the opportunity to weaken CITES ability to implement trade sanctions on signatory countries. As such this could peel back one of the few positives that was put in place in the 1970s, at a time when the world appeared to be more empathetic to the plight of the natural world.
This thinking is based on a fallacy, as it ignores the opportunity cost of doing nothing. On the current trajectory, 25% of animal species are headed for extinction, with trade being one of the two main drivers. CITES is failing to protect species, so doing nothing means watching populations collapse and species go extinct. If we accept that the default is certain failure, the fear of a comprehensive review of CITES and reopening the articles for re-negotiation becomes irrelevant.
This is why Nature Needs More continues to call for CITES to move to a reverse (white, positive) listing model, as was first recommended in 1981, and industry levies to properly resource the legal trade regulator.
In recent years, we studied hundreds of academic publications, CITES documents and NGO reports which when taken together made it clear that the current system for trade regulation is not working and that ‘sustainable use’ is just a phrase brandished around without any evidence. We outlined this case in our Debunking Sustainable Use report, published June 2020. In 2018, we sketched out a 3-step solution to fixing the problems with the legal trade, based on moving to electronic permits and electronic permit exchange in the first step and then making industry cover the cost of regulation to fix the chronic underfunding of all aspects of trade monitoring and enforcement. This solution also resurrected a 3-decade old proposal, from Australia, to move CITES to a reverse (white, positive) listing model. This would mean CITES adopts the Precautionary Principle as the basis for allowing trade and it shifts the burden of proof onto industry, which has the money to fund the necessary research.