The CITES Secretariat said in a statement that the treaty’s administrators do collect data from countries on legal imports and exports, and for some iconic animals they have established more elaborate monitoring systems. The most sophisticated of these tracks the illegal killing of elephants and analyzes illegal trade. When wildlife rangers around the world find elephant carcasses, for example, they establish the cause of death and report the information to the CITES program that monitors the illegal killing of elephants. The information is included in a database and analyzed to help keep an eye on poaching and trends in illegal trade.
But Challender argues that this isn’t enough. Decisions to tighten trade, he says, need a comprehensive assessment of the likely consequences of doing so—including information on market factors such as retail prices, sales volumes, consumer preferences, and social and cultural attitudes to the consumption of wildlife. And when the data suggest that outright bans or severe trade restrictions won’t work, those who would safeguard wildlife should look to other creative solutions. “A trade ban may feel intuitively positive, but it’s difficult to predict the outcome for species,” he says.
Complicating matters are disagreements over how to best safeguard a species from extinction while balancing its importance to some people’s livelihoods.
Groups such as Born Free, which prioritizes animal welfare, doubt that wildlife trade could ever be sustainable or thus helpful to conservation. Legal trade creates opportunities to launder specimens obtained illegally, say Jones and Stroud. For example, ivory products from legal and illegal sources were sold side by side in China prior to the country’s domestic ban on ivory trade in 2017.
But some wildlife-trade analysts note that sustainable trade provides a livelihood for people in many communities, and constitutes big business in countries like China. Banning or restricting trade when there’s little evidence to suggest that tighter controls may help a species, they say, can harm local communities and shift countries’ limited conservation funds away from neglected species.
“From our perspective, a [trade ban] is more a sign of conservation failure rather than a goal to strive for,” Zain says. A ban, he adds, shows that previous efforts to restrict trade through limited export permits failed to help a species’ population recover.
Zain wants to see more effort put into making trade restrictions work for species by better assessing their populations and how much trade a given population can handle. If those additional efforts fail, countries could then consider a ban.
Representatives from CITES acknowledged that legal wildlife trade is essential for the livelihoods of many local people, but said that the type of extensive data collection advocated by Challender would be too time-consuming and expensive if done for every species under threat. Still, they added, the convention has made improvements. Since 2017, it has required countries to report data on illegal trade garnered from seizures and other violations. Member countries have contracted the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to develop a database of countries’ illegal trade to make data analysis easier; the office has produced two detailed global reports, the most recent in July of this year.