Reforms needed to the establishment of CITES trade bans

Dan Challender and Amy Hinsley

The international legal wildlife trade involves thousands of species of plants, animals and fungi. Ensuring that this trade remains sustainable is the role of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and it does so through the listing of species in one of its three Appendices, with corresponding trade controls. Wild-sourced plants and animals or derivatives thereof that are listed in CITES Appendix II can be traded internationally for commercial purposes if certain conditions are met, including that trade in given specimens is sustainable and the necessary permits are issued. Where species are deemed threatened with extinction and are negatively affected by trade, the CITES Parties can establish international bans on commercial trade by including species in Appendix I. At the next CITES Conference of Parties, CoP18, there are 17 proposals to list species in Appendix I, including species ranging from the swallowtail butterfly (Parides burchellanus) to the African elephant (Loxodonta africana). Appendix I proposals typically receive a lot of support from, and are celebrated by, some NGOs and policy-makers because they are seen as inherently positive. The overwhelming assumption from many is that prohibiting commercial international trade will surely benefit the species in question.

A wild Paphiopedilum orchid for sale on a market stall. All Paphiopedilum species are CITES Appendix I listed and the majority are threatened trade.
A wild Paphiopedilum orchid for sale on a market stall. All Paphiopedilum species are CITES Appendix I listed and the majority are threatened by trade.

Are international trade bans are effective?

In reality, there is little evidence that international trade bans are effective. Even where bans have been established historically, and have been considered by some to be effective (as in the case of rhinoceroses), they have proven ineffective over time. In the case of rhino products, the trade ban established in the late 1970s has been undermined in the last decade by emergent markets for rhino horn and changing trade and trafficking dynamics. Put another way, trade bans are ineffective because they fail to contend adequately with the economic, social and cultural complexity of wildlife trade, and how it changes over time, and for this reason it could be argued that international trade bans are predisposed to failure.

A variety of wild and cultivated orchids for sale. Most orchids are CITES listed on CITES Appendix II, and are important products in the domestic and international wildlife trade.
A variety of wild and cultivated orchids for sale. Most orchids are listed on CITES Appendix II, and are important products in the domestic and international wildlife trade.

The need to consider the complexity of wildlife trade 

In our recent paper, Inadequacies in establishing CITES trade bans, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment last week, we argue that proposals to include species in Appendix I scarcely consider the impact of a trade ban on the actors involved in the harvest and international trade in species. We exemplified this by reviewing the 17 proposals to include species in Appendix I at CoP18 and found that most of them did not consider markets for wildlife (e.g., consumer preferences) and how consumers would respond, or means of mitigating the impact of proposed bans on local people in source areas for the species in trade. This is despite, in some cases, very high financial incentives for local people to harvest and trade the species, which can contribute significantly to local livelihoods. This means that it is very difficult to predict the impact of bans and apply the precautionary principle in CITES. There are myriad examples where trade bans have been established but illegal trade in the species has either continued or even increased, (e.g., orchids, pangolins). In certain cases, a ban might lead to price rises and an increase in poaching rates. Therefore, without considering the likely impact of bans, the worst case scenario is that they actually do more harm than good.

This predicament is concerning because it indicates that international policy decisions are being made without a good understanding of the likely impact of decisions. To address this, we argue in the paper that reforms should be made to the CITES listing criteria (Res. Conf. 9.24, Rev. CoP17) and to how the CITES Parties make decisions on proposed amendments to the Appendices. Specifically, in addition to biological and trade criteria being used to guide listing decisions, markets for traded wildlife and socio-economic factors surrounding harvest and trade should also be considered explicitly. We also recommend that evaluation of CITES listing proposals should include scenario analyses to explore potential outcomes, paying particular attention to areas of uncertainty. Finally, we recommend that proposals should include an evidenced theory of change explaining how the listing decision is expected to contribute to improving the status of species. Only by contending with the complex reality of wildlife trade, can the CITES Parties make listing decisions that they are confident will contribute to ensuring that international wildlife trade is sustainable.