Kodak was founded in 1888 and, during most of the 20th century, it held a dominant position in photographic film. Although Kodak developed the first handheld digital camera in 1975, fear of losing its dominance in the global market for its traditional camera, and film, business meant the product was dropped. By the mid-2000s, it had become very clear that Kodak failed to anticipate how consumers allegiance had shifted to a digital world. In 2012, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Has CITES now reached its Kodak Moment, where its lack of responsiveness to a changing world, compounded by a pandemic triggered by the inherent biosecurity risks of the legal trade in wildlife, mean it cannot survive in its current form? Like Kodak, CITES has so far missed the digital revolution, with nearly 170 of its 183 signatory parties still using the 1970s paper-based system. But the future of CITES is much more than building a modern system that can ensure supply chain transparency, though that would be a welcome first step.

There are a few schools of thought about the future of the CITES convention:

Option 1: Maintain the CITES convention unchanged.
Undoubtedly this is the option preferred by most of the big players, NGOs, IGOs, conservation academia and government signatories of CITES.

Option 2: Dismantle the CITES convention – allow free, unchecked trade.
Certainly the current neoliberal model appears to happily ignore, or even exploit, the continued rapid decline of wildlife populations and wild places for the profits of the few. Their 40 year highly successful campaign has convinced society that any regulation is inherently bad.

Option 3: Dismantle the CITES convention – close down all trade.
The option preferred by many of the less powerful conservation players and activists, who are not a part or a significant part of the current self-sustaining system. Sadly, this goes against the entrenched free trade model.

Option 4: Modernise the CITES convention as a result of a strategic review.
Update and properly resource the CITES regulator, so trade is transparent, and the legal and illegal trade can be effectively decoupled. Key would be that this would require a change to the CITES convention to move to a reverse (white, positive) listing approach, which means a change to the articles.

The last change to the convention was made in 1983, which enabled the Secretariat to raise funds, and the only strategic review of the convention was in 1994, the only one in 46 years of CITES operation.

How many organisations would survive if they had only conducted one strategic review in 46 years? Such a lack of reflection by a leadership team would result in an organisation being unable to maintain its relevance to an evolving world. So, the key question is, why won’t the CITES signatory parties open the convention for a strategic review and change, what are they afraid will be uncovered in the process?

It is obvious to the world that the CITES convention has failed, and continues to fail, to protect the very species it was set up to safeguard, even though many who have been involved in the convention try to maintain the illusion that it is ‘sufficiently effective’.

What most people wouldn’t know is how this failure has happened. Significant flaws in the convention are hidden in plain sight and have been allowed to remain since it came into force.

Just one example is that it is not mandatory for CITES signatories to have an enforcement authority. In signing on to the convention:

  1. A Management Authority is mandatory,
  2. A Scientific Authority is mandatory, but,
  3. An Enforcement Authority is optional.

A recent review found that 85 CITES signatory countries do not have an Enforcement Authority. The review was rightly concerned about the “level of attention given to discovering violations as well as to any resulting arrests, prosecutions, and so forth when violations do take place.”

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.

As we started to socialise these ideas in the CITES and conservation communities, it quickly became apparent that the long-term participants are unaccustomed to questioning the overall effectiveness of the current regulatory system. Similarly, there appears to be a paralysis when it comes to contemplating what a radical overhaul would look like and how it could be done.

In talking about other industries that are regulated based on positive (reverse) lists or the Precautionary Principle it was obvious such comparisons had not been previously considered. As a result of meeting with hundreds of people, including representatives from over 30 CITES signatory countries, we decided that we needed to provide a much more detailed blueprint of the WHAT, HOW and WHY of modernising CITES. This meant exploring different regulatory systems from other industries in detail and studying regulatory failures and their effects.

From this work in 2019 and 2020, we derived the basic building blocks for a modern, effective global regulator of the trade in endangered species. We then fleshed out those basic building blocks to come up with the main structures and processes that would enable CITES to function in a way that will:

  1. Make trade truly, ecologically sustainable and
  2. Make all trade legal (as defined in the 2030 targets of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework)

Because secure funding is absolutely critical to achieving both aims, we adopted a funding model proven in the pharmaceutical industry and adapted it for CITES. With most of CITES related trade going into luxury products, putting a compliance burden equivalent to 2.5% of the value of trade on all participating businesses is clearly feasible and viable. We also solved the question of the inherent inequities in the trade (biomass extraction in developing countries to satisfy luxury demand from wealthy countries) through adopting a counteracting strategy for listing applications and distribution of funds.

This report, Modernising CITES: A Blueprint for Better Trade Regulation will be published on the 30 June 2021. Please contact me, at lynn@natureneedsmore.org if you would like the report to be emailed to you on the day.