One of the key arguments used for not moving to a reverse-listing (positive-listing, white-listing) regulatory system for the trade in wild species is that CITES already has a mechanism for implementing the precautionary principle – the Non-Detriment Findings (NDFs). In theory, the convention directs signatory counties to only issue export permits for Appendix I and II listed species when the national Scientific Authority of the State of export has advised that such export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species.

Yet, as with the CITES regulator more broadly, ample evidence has been provided over the years that NDFs are unfit-for-purpose. The concerns about the quality and trustworthiness of NDFs are completely justifiable, given the lack of rigour and transparency in the way they are currently implemented.

The ‘non-binding guiding principles’ on NDFs are contained in a 3-page resolution which basically allows national authorities to do whatever they want (which includes not preparing a NDF).

That the process is completely broken was acknowledged in a 2020 CITES Secretariat Report which provided a powerful condemnation of NDFs and more evidence of why the CITES convention needs a complete overhaul, starting with a strategic review.

The CITES report showed that of 36 NDFs examined:

  • 64% inadequately considered the precautionary principle, and
  • 83% did not fully consider historical and current patterns of harvest and mortality.

Other research has confirmed NDFs suffer from:

  1. Insufficient data for most populations or species, precluding the ability to develop meaningful harvest/export quotas.
  2. A rarity of good quality assessment.
  3. The distorting effects of stockpiling and laundering.
  4. The fact that at least 21% of threatened species have outdated assessment.
  5. A lack of lack of standards that leads to high degree of bias and subjectivity in some assessments.
  6. Conflicts of interest in funding bodies for NDF work are not being considered.

In a way this is completely unsurprising, compiling data onspecies biology and life-history characteristics; species range (historical and current); population structure, status and trends (in the harvested area, nationally and internationally); threats; historical and current species-specific levels and patterns of harvest and mortality (e.g. age, sex) from all sources combined; management  measures currently in place and proposed, including adaptive management strategies and consideration of levels of compliance; population monitoring; and conservation statusis incredibly time consuming and expensive. This doesn’t mean it cant’t be done, the upfront investment to manage risks must be managed in the same way as new pharmaceuticals are developed.

Most national scientific authorities simply do not have the manpower or money to conduct these assessments for more than a handful of species. And given budget cuts, this situation is only getting worse.

Add to this NDFs rarely, it ever, cover anything on about the risks from the demand side. So NDFs for pythons don’t acknowledge that the luxury fashion sector, while saying it is dropping fur, has significantly invested in driving up the desire for (exotic) leather. In one 2022 article, Kering, Burberry plan “year of maturity [whatever that means!]” in sustainability, “Burberry joined other luxury leaders in placing leather goods at the centre of its growth strategy”. Similarly, NDFs created to try to open up the trade in rhino horn didn’t cover the lack of understanding of consumer desire or how this desire could be driven up by advertising budgets if the trade was legalised.

The growing criticism of CITES in recent years means that the last 18 months has seen a scramble of material whose aim seems to be to validate the CITES and its processes, so it should come as no surprise that this extends to NDFs. This week in Nairobi, 150 experts will gather to review and improve draft NDF guidance materials.

In a November 2023 article about the workshop, the CITES Secretary General, Ivonne Higuero, wrote, “As efforts continue to develop new guidance on making Non-detrimental findings (NDFs), I cannot help but reflect on the decades of dedication that CITES, its Parties, and other stakeholders have poured into NDFs”. This statement is undoubtedly true, as just one document from 2002, Guideline for CITES Scientific Authorities: Checklist to assist in making non-detriment findings for Appendix II exports, demonstrates.

All this begs the question, how has the “rudimentary nature of many NDFs, [which] means that CITES regulations [continues to] provide inadequate protection for many species.”, been allowed to continue for decades? To maintain the farmyard analogy, you can’t keep flogging a dead horse, but these seems to be the plan given the Nairobi workshop.

So, why are NDFs so useless? For a start and even if the NDF was of a good quality (and that is a big IF), any national export quotas of CITES Appendix II species (ca. 97% of all CITES species), which may be proposed as a result of an NDF, are non-binding. While supposedly exports of Appendix II species can only be granted if the Scientific Authority of the State of export has determined that it is not detrimental to the survival of a species, Appendix II species are frequently traded internationally without corresponding NDF’s.

One NDF guideline document I read did make me LOL because it said, “The export quotas should be established or revised through an NDF by a Scientific Authority, and they should be reviewed annually. Such a statement is a reflection of the naivety of approach to CITES processes by some global conservation organisations. They still believe that if you put a rule like that into a resolution or decision, it will magically happen. Irrespective of the fact that funding levels are so inadequate its existing recommendations and guidelines cannot be enacted in most cases.

As well as being non-binding, there is no mechanism for controlling the quality of NDFs used to inform ‘sustainable’ offtakes and there is no central repository (the CITES website has just 205 NDFs publicly available) or peer-reviewed assessment of NDFs outside of the Parties’ own scientific authorities, except for species-specific quotas set directly by the Conference of Parties or Scientific Committees.

The whole process as it stands is basically perception management (as is CITES itself), a charade enacted in the background and easily gamed by the businesses and industries benefiting from the trade.

So, what could save the NDF from, what should be, the brink of extinction? Given that CITES is supposed to incorporate the Precautionary Principle, the default outcome of a NDF in the absence of reliable data has to be no trade.

Obviously, that would not be well received by some national authorities and the businesses profiting from the trade, so it would require what is currently lacking from the NDF process – centralised quality control and a central repository of all NDFs. And let’s not forget that this would mean the stakeholders could no longer ignore the CITES funding crisis because right now, even if the was a will to fix CITES flawed processes, there is no funding.

I have been writing this article, in parallel with watching CoP28. In the midst of the CoP28 train wreck, one campaign grabbed my attention, CoP28 Is a Joke. Our future Isn’t.

The same could be said for the conventions that are in place to supposedly protect wild species from the international trade in wild species and the extinction crisis. For the 40,000 rare and commercially valuable species listed for CITES trade restrictions and the many more traded without even this minimal level of monitoring, while the global commitment to protecting them is a joke, their future isn’t. 

Let’s stop just talking about the Precautionary Principle and finally put it into action.