CITES reform: Enhanced wildlife trade regime needed to avoid next pandemic

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The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has been called ‘the most successful of all international treaties concerned with the conservation of wildlife’ (Lyster, 2010). Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn increasing attention to the Convention’s serious shortcomings in and regulating wildlife exploitation. Highlighting the link between pandemics and wildlife exploitation, researchers have suggested that the most likely cause of COVID-19 appears to be a virus originating in bats sold at wildlife markets that jumped the species barrier and infected humans via an intermediate host that is yet to be determined. The legal wildlife industry, worth $320 billion, however, has been regulated by a system that has not changed in nearly 50 years. Yet with CITES remaining one of the few binding conventions on environmental law, it has a significant role to play in dealing with the pandemic and its aftermath. This article proposes an enhanced role through reform of the Convention in order to avoid the next wildlife-related pandemic.

Reform of CITES

In March, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, questions arose on the link between the coronavirus and the wildlife trade. Conservation groups, in particular, were quick to highlight this relationship, but the CITES Secretariat seems to have distanced itself from the crisis. In its official statement, the Secretariat noted that: ‘matters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate, and therefore the CITES Secretariat does not have the competence to make comments regarding the recent news on the possible links between human consumption of wild animals and COVID-19′.

It is arguable that this statement takes a very narrow interpretation of CITES’s mandate. Taking the ordinary meaning of the Convention and its preamble in light of its object and purpose, it can be seen that while the object and purpose of CITES is to avoid extinction in endangered species, the preamble to CITES refers to the need to be ‘conscious of the ever-growing value of wild fauna and flora from aesthetic, scientific, cultural, recreational and economic points of view’. It is suggested that there is immense scientific value in identifying the wild fauna that are known to pose a public health risk to humans and that the CITES mandate should be wide enough to cover this. If there had been enough scientific understanding of the risk posed by animals with zoonotic diseases and carrying the coronavirus, then listing these animals in Appendix I would have the effect of prohibiting their trade.

The issue, of course, is that Appendix I only prohibits trade in species that are threatened with extinction. If bats, or any subsequently identified animal acting as intermediate host, are not threatened with extinction, then they cannot be listed in Appendix I. Yet there are suggestions that the virus jumped to humans from pangolins, which enjoy the highest level of protection under the Convention and are amongst the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world. If this were the case, ineffective implementation of CITES obligations by states may have contributed to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Expanding CITES focus

More generally, however, there has been criticism surrounding the basis on which CITES operates. As former CITES Secretariat, John Scanlan, explains, ‘CITES has enjoyed keeping its rather narrow focus’. He notes that the Convention does not directly address non-trade issues and has ‘tended to want to stick to the sustainability issues’.

Indeed, the current international legal framework on wildlife trade focuses solely on sustainability. CITES does not take into account public health risks or animal health risks and this may have been adequate pre-COVID-19. But this cannot be adequate post-COVID-19, where the trade regime must look at broader issues of human health risks associated with the industry. In this respect, the CITES Secretariat’s narrow reading of its mandate has been heavily criticised by conservation groups in light of the need to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

After all, CITES cannot only be characterised as a trade agreement – it is also a cornerstone of international environmental law. The Secretariat’s downplaying of the role of CITES in managing the pandemic has led to calls for a new international convention to all anthropogenic drivers of zoonotic diseases and that goes beyond the sole aspect of wildlife trade. There is a risk, however, that such a new treaty could be duplicative of CITES, making the regulatory framework unnecessarily complicated. For this reason, it is suggested that it a better option would be instead to reform the existing enforcement mechanism.

Expanding CITES coverage of species

One path for reform of CITES includes expanding its coverage, especially with respect to species for which public health concerns arise. For example, horseshoe bats, the family of bats considered to be the possible host species for the novel coronavirus, are not listed in CITES. At the very least, there should be less delay for species listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species – a list that informs the species that are placed in the CITES Appendices – to eventually be regulated under the Convention. Research published this year showed that it took an average of 12 years for a species listed on the IUCN Red List and therefore at risk of extinction to be regulated under CITES. Providing for ways to shorten the length of time it takes for species to be listed in the Appendices in turn allows for greater coverage and regulation through CITES even if the Appendix system remains the same.

Alternatively, there should be a reversal of the current system since listing those species for which trade is limited or banned completely is the opposite of many other industries, as environmental campaigners point out. They argue that this should be reversed so that only species in which trade is permitted are listed, and those profiting from the trade must be able to demonstrate that it is sustainable.

Reforming the use of permits

In terms of permits, one study has shown that only 7.3 percent of CITES permits were discrepancy-free in terms of actual and reported trade data. Discrepancies in the permit system could arise from anything as simple as officials not recording how many of a particular species are being exported because permit are beings filled in by hand, with no training or knowledge on how to do this properly.

Besides adding provisions on obligatory and sufficient training on the permit system, an electronic system for permits would provide a huge boost to its effectiveness. Since 2010, CITES and the signatory countries have discussed creating a wholly electronic system that is fully integrated with customs, at a cost of an estimated $40 million. To date, states have not been prepared to fund this, but the pandemic may be the push needed for this system to eventually be implemented.

Tackling wildlife crime

The COVID-19 pandemic has also allowed for gaps to be identified in the international legal framework for wildlife law. There is a particularly concerning gap with respect to wildlife crime: CITES does not tackle wildlife crime, per se, and does not apply to environmental crimes that occur within national boundaries. Yet domestic crimes fuel international illicit trade in wildlife, with wildlife trafficking rivaling in value the trade in drugs, weapons, and human traffic. It is, therefore, suggested that one area for reform would be to add a protocol to CITES expanding its remit so as to impose obligations on states to criminalise these domestic crimes.

Such reform would arguably be consistent with a broader interpretation of the CITES’ Secretariat’s mandate according to the object and purpose of the Convention as has been demonstrated above. Yet CITES’ current interpretation of its mandate is to limit itself to complementing the efforts of national wildlife law enforcement agencies through collaboration with other organisations such as INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, and the World Customs Organization through the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC). The aim of the ICCWC is to support and strengthen criminal justice systems at national, regional, and international levels. However, the ICCWC lacks the funding it requires to drive coordinated efforts to combat wildlife crime. In this respect, COVID-19 is likely to be – and in China’s case has already been – an impetus for governments to better handle the consequences of wildlife crime and the public health risks associated with it. With the last major funding boost to the ICCWC being granted in 2017, it is high time for governments to focus on greater investment in the ICCWC that has great potential to act to help prevent the next wildlife-related pandemic.


The immense cost of COVID-19 may spur governments to take preventive action to more effectively tackle unregulated, poorly regulated or illegal wildlife trade. Ultimately, notwithstanding the CITES Secretariat’s narrow interpretation of its remit, it is states that must take responsibility for reviewing implementation of the Convention and making recommendations for improving it. Proposals for reform of CITES should therefore be urgently reviewed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. An enhanced role for CITES has great potential to prevent the next wildlife-related pandemic and to more effectively manage trade in threatened species, especially those that pose great risks to human health.

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