The CITES Convention requires parties to establish domestic measures to penalize illegal trade. The success or failure of this depends on how CITES provisions are translated into national law, implemented and enforced.
The definition of enforcement may be found in the Guidelines on Compliance with and Enforcement of Multilateral Environmental Agreements adopted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council:
‘The range of procedures and actions employed by a State, its competent authorities and agencies to ensure that organizations or persons, potentially failing to comply with environmental laws or regulations implementing MEAs (Multilateral Environmental Agreements), can be brought or returned into compliance and/or punished through civil, administrative or criminal action.’
As Reeve suggests ‘implementation and enforcement are means to achieve compliance with a treaty’s rules’ (Reeve 2002).
According to this definition, transposing CITES into 180 different national laws implies many different approaches towards illegal wildlife trade. In terms of enforcement, there are considerable differences from one legal system to another with different penalties, different procedures and different actors (De Klemm 1993).
This could be an element of concern, especially when dealing with whole regions such as the EU or ASEAN: discrepancies among sanctions may facilitate for organised crime to move to and operate from countries that do not have adequate wildlife criminal legislation or extradition policies (Izzo 2010).
Even more, in the context of regional economic integration, internal borders may be eliminated and illegal trade is likely to favour trade via parties with the weakest external borders and enforcement effectively undermining control across entire regions (e.g. EU, ASEAN). This is particularly true because with the removal of border controls, wildlife can be moved freely within the integrated economic regions (Kecse-Nagy et al. 2014).
According to some NGOs, the lack of effective enforcement to disrupt the international syndicates involved in wildlife crime is a common and persistent problem, often due to a lack of investment and commitment from the highest levels of government (Environmental Investigation Agency, 2014).
Having said that, it must be acknowledged that implementation and enforcement are not the only means to tackle illegal wildlife trade. The characteristics of the black market depend on each species: there will be different offenders, different stakeholders, different patterns, different consumers, different uses, different countries involved.
For example, the dynamics of the illegal trade of ivory and elephant tusks between Africa and Asia, notably China is incomparable with the illegal timber trade between Peru and the United States.
Fighting illegal wildlife trade is far from being a matter to be resolved with a one-size-fit-all solution. There are many other elements that have to be taken into consideration for each type of illegal trade: demand and supply, size of the market, routes, involvement of criminal organisations, role played by culture, importance for local economies, communities livelihood, characteristics of the species. Reducing these complex issues into an enforcement problem fails to address the underlying drivers of poaching and trade (Velasquez Gomar and Stringer 2011 as cited in Challender and McMillan 2014).
At the same time, it is important to understand why currently existing regulations and enforcement efforts are failing. Issues such as increasing prices, growing demand, and the sophistication of some poachers represent only partial explanations (Phelps et al. 2014).
Considering all these elements, there are certain cases when capacity building, awareness raising, conservation policies, empowering local communities and stepping up political will be more effective that having a set of legislation and enforcement measures difficult to understand and implement.
One example of the possible success of using other tools to combat illegal wildlife trade may be the decrease in consumption of shark fin soup in China thanks to the awareness raising campaign supported by a famous Chinese basketball player (WildAid 2015).
Notwithstanding, tackling such a complex matter only from one of the above mentioned perspectives remains an unrealistic option. This is why this study considers that, together with any other action put in place, enforcing national law remains an essential element in the fight against wildlife trade.
Strengthening the implementation of existing legislation, covering gaps, and increasing regulatory deterrents through fines, prosecutions, and imprisonment sentences are still important tools to tackle wildlife trafficking, especially in regions where poaching and illegal trade go largely unpunished (Shepherd 2010 as cited in Phelps 2014). Equally important is the need to include associated issues such as corruption and money laundering, and improved analysis of environmental crime and customs data (Phelps 2014).
Challender, D. W. S. and MacMillan, D. C. (2014). Poaching is more than an enforcement problem, Conservation Letters, Volume 7, Issue 5, pages 484–494;
De Klemm, C. (1993). Guidelines for Legislation to implement CITES, IUCN Environmental Policy and Law Paper No. 26;
Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) (2014). In cold Blood: combating organised wildlife crime;
Izzo J.B., (2010). PC Pets for a Price: Combating Online and Traditional Wildlife Crime through International Harmonization and Authoritative Policies, William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, Volume 34, Issue 3;
Kecse-Nagy, K. et al. (2014). Regional economic integration organizations: their role in implementing CITES, TRAFFIC Bulletin;
Phelps J. et al. (2014), No easy alternatives to conservation enforcement: response to Challender and Macmillan, Conservation Letters, Volume 7, Issue 5, pages 495-496;
Reeve R., (2002). Policing International Trade in Endangered Species: The CITES Treaty and Compliance, Earth scan Publications Ltd, London;