International trade of wildlife is an old practice which dates hundreds of years back.
It was only in the last century that the global community agreed to set a framework regulating this lucrative trade through CITES. The text of the Convention was negotiated in the early 70s and entered into force on 1 July 1975. Today there are 181 parties signatories, making it one of the most accepted and acceded Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEA). Its main objective is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
This picture shows an import of rhino horns in Spain coming from South Africa. It was authorized by the Spanish CITES Management Authority (M.A) as a hunting trophy for non-commercial purposes according to the indication in the CITES Appendices (annotation 6).
Illegal wildlife trade is not defined per se in the text of the Convention, but it may be induced by combining several provisions of CITES:
- Article I defines trade as ‘export, re-export, import and introduction from the sea’. It also defines specimen in general as any animal or plant, whether alive or dead or any readily recognizable part or derivative thereof. This terms have to be interpreted in accordance with the annotations in the Appendices.
- Article II stipulates that Parties are not to allow trade in specimens of listed species except in accordance with the Convention.
- Article VIII requires Parties to take appropriate measures to prohibit trade in violation of the Convention and to enforce its provisions. These domestic measures include those to penalize illegal trade or possession and to provide for the confiscation or return to the State of export of illegally traded or possessed specimens.
If trade in listed species is only allowed in accordance with the Convention, it could therefore be induced that illegal wildlife trade is any export, re-export, import and introduction from the sea of any animal or plant, whether alive or dead or any readily recognizable part or derivative of listed species in contravention of the provisions of the Convention.
Typical violations include trading without an appropriate and valid permit or certificate; trading in violation of the conditions set out in a permit or certificate; obtaining a permit or certificate through false statement; fraudulently altering a permit or certificate; tampering with an identification mark; and possessing a wild animal or plant or specimen that was illegally obtained. These all require a transnational aspect:
CITES provisions only apply to international cross-border movements of wildlife.
For further analysis of wildlife trafficking as a crime, I would recommend to read Dr. Wyatt's book: Wildlife Trafficking: A deconstruction of the crime, the victims and the offender’, (Critical Criminological Perspectives, Ed. Palgrave McMillan 2014), which offers a thorough study worth reading.
Without going into each type of breach, it must be remembered that every party signatory to the Convention may penalize these actions in a different way. Normally, they are viewed as 'administrative’ breaches rather than as ‘serious’ breaches because of the economic element that they represent (they are frequently motivated by the desire to make money or to avoid regulatory costs). As a result, they may not attract sufficient government interest and resources.
Notwithstanding, growing global concern over illegal trade, particularly following estimated record levels of illegal poaching and trade of rhinos and on-going traffic in ivory, valuable timber, and thousands of other species has shown that illegal trade needs to be at the forefront of debates.
At Barajas Airport in Madrid, a display of numerous ivory tusks and one rhino horn confiscated by the Spanish authorities. These pieces are kept within the airport premises for educational purposes.
Wildlife trafficking may be found in combination with well-established crimes such as fraud, counterfeiting, arms trafficking, conspiracy, bribery and money laundering. What is more: the level of profits acquired can be quite high depending on the rarity and preciousness of the species.
This is why the international community has started looking at the issue as a ‘mainstream’ problem in the same way as drug or arms trafficking, and more initiatives are seeing the light.
A little bit of CITES history...
CITES first started calling the attention to this issue in its Resolution Conf. 9.14 (Rev. CoP15) related to the conservation and trade in African and Asian rhinoceroses whereby it is recognized that
‘illegal trade in rhino horn is a global law enforcement problem extending beyond range states and traditional consuming countries’.
At that moment, Parties were called to implement enforcement controls with the objective of reducing illegal trade.
The same ideas were conveyed later on in relation to trade in bears in Resolution Conf. 10.8 (Rev. CoP14) stating that illegal trade undermines the effectiveness of the Convention.
A further step was taken with Resolution Conf.10.10 (Rev. CoP16) on trade in elephant specimens were parties not only required urgent and concerted efforts, but proposed a series of specific measures such as the use and contribution of parties with information on seizures and confiscations to the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) which monitors the scale and pattern of illegal trade in ivory and other elephant specimens since 1998.
CITES took a horizontal and cross-cutting approach towards illegal trade in Resolution Conf.11.3 (Rev. CoP16) which may be read in combination with Decisions 16.39 and16.40 on Enforcement matters.
Without making an exhaustive analysis of these important documents, it is necessary to underline that they acknowledge illegal wildlife trade as a major concern, cause of serious damage to wildlife, and its effects on reducing the effectiveness of management programmes and undermining legal and sustainable trade particularly in the developing countries.
Countries that import these illegally obtained resources are considered as directly responsible for encouraging illegal trade worldwide and therefore CITES parties recognize a clear need to strengthen the enforcement of the Convention as a tool to fight illegal wildlife trade.
Resolution Conf. 11.3 establishes a set of very specific recommendations to Parties on compliance, control, cooperation, communication of information and coordination. Notably, it recommends the use of INTERPOL Ecomessage and provides Guidance for the creation of specialized Wildlife Law Enforcement units.
As for Decisions 16.39 and 16.40, the CITES Secretariat was directly compelled to submit a report on enforcement matters at each Standing Committee meeting and each regular meeting of the Conference of the Parties and establish Wildlife Incident Support Teams (WISTs) at the request of a country. The first report was submitted during the Standing Committee meeting of July 2014.
At the request of Sri Lanka, the first WIST was deployed (led by INTERPOL) in July 2013 to assist national authorities to determine the origin of the ivory and potentially identify the criminal networks behind large-scale elephant poaching (SC65 Doc. 27.1).
There is no doubt that illegal wildlife trade has seen a raising concern from the parties to the Convention. It could therefore be understood that the main international instrument to fight wildlife trafficking is CITES. However, there seems to be sometimes a misconception about the role CITES plays: the objective of the Convention is to regulate trade to sustainable levels, and not to ban trade.
According to the former Chief of Legal Affairs & Trade Policy at the CITES Secretariat:
‘International trade in wildlife should not be considered as synonymous with illegal wildlife trafficking. It is possible to have legal, sustainable and traceable trade in wildlife, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES or the Convention) is a tool for ensuring this’.
In fact, some CITES Resolutions acknowledge the important role that trade may play in conservation. For instance, in Resolution Conf. 8.3 (Rev. COP 13) parties recognize that:
‘Commercial trade may be beneficial to the conservation of species and ecosystems or to the development of local people when carried out at levels that are not detrimental to the survival of the species in question’
As a matter of fact, it should be considered that in the struggle for the conservation of species, illegal wildlife trade only represents part of the problem, together with habitat degradation, pollution, human-animal conflict and urban development.
On the other hand, the success or failure of the Convention depends directly in the way it
UN’s Lone Ranger: Combating International Wildlife Crime' (Whittles Publishing 2014).
Reeve states that the Secretariat has a great role in monitoring compliance through analysing the periodical reports received from each Party, however, these are often incomplete or inaccurate making it very difficult for the Secretariat to determine who is in non-compliance (Policing International Trade in Endangered Species: The CITES Treaty and Compliance, Routledge 2002).
Even if these situations are clearly observed, a cooperative approach is the first attempt to try to achieve compliance, and only in very clear or frequent situations will there be a possibility to propose stopping all CITES trade with that particular country. Even then, this is a voluntary suspension rather than a legally-binding obligation for other parties, although it has been used to effectively gain compliance from parties.