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Year : 2022  |  Volume : 20  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 190-192

Is CITES Protecting Wildlife?: Assessing Implementation and Compliance

University of Alabama, Alabama, USA

Correspondence Address:
Jared D Margulies
University of Alabama, Alabama
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_12_22

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Date of Web Publication20-Apr-2022

How to cite this article:
Margulies JD. Is CITES Protecting Wildlife?: Assessing Implementation and Compliance. Conservat Soc 2022;20:190-2

How to cite this URL:
Margulies JD. Is CITES Protecting Wildlife?: Assessing Implementation and Compliance. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2022 [cited 2023 May 28];20:190-2. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2022/20/2/190/343652

Wyatt, T. Is CITES protecting wildlife?: Assessing Implementation and Compliance. Routledge, 2021. (Pp 178) Paperback (ISBN 978-0-3674-4128-9) £27.99.

It was not so long ago that discussions of illegal wildlife trade regulations were peripheral even within academic circles dedicated to the study of wildlife conservation. Perhaps if Tanya Wyatt's new book, Is CITES protecting wildlife?: Assessing Implementation and Compliance, had been published prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic—whose origins are likely linked to the human-animal interface and possibly illegal wildlife trade—its publication in the Routledge Studies in Conservation and the Environment series would have held a narrower appeal for relevant Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) technocrats. The book's timeliness and importance should be immediately apparent to those concerned about how humans live (and might live better) with wildlife.

Wyatt is a professor of criminology who has long studied wildlife trade (legal and illegal) and the governmental and intergovernmental bodies and the conventions that regulate them. As the title suggests, this is a detailed and focused study of CITES implementation and compliance, drawing primarily on a social survey tool, in-depth interviews, and extensive legislative content analysis. This is not an ethnography of the bureaucracies and bureaucrats that together constitute CITES. Instead, this is a reasonably slim, dense, and fact-filled assessment of whether CITES is meeting its charge on the grounds of implementation and compliance based on the objectives outlined by CITES.

“CITES' purpose is to ensure international wildlife trade is sustainable,” Wyatt writes (p. 2). “But is CITES working and protecting wildlife?” Already at the beginning of the book there is a tension in Wyatt's question: there is a crucial gap between determining if CITES is successful in its charge of preventing unsustainable international trade, and the question of whether or not CITES is “protecting” wildlife. Wyatt knows this. It is clear through conducting this research, Wyatt has more to say about CITES than whether it is successfully regulating international trade in wildlife sustainably, but also wants readers to consider whether such trade should exist at all. In protection, Wyatt is casting a far-wider net in defining the scope of her question, project, and subsequent assessment. As an international convention with 184 (and counting) signatories, CITES' “aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species” (CITES 2021). The mission of CITES is not one of protection per se, but regulating trade in order to ensure they do not further threaten species' survival. In short, CITES is a trade convention, not a conservation convention, yet it is precisely this muddying of the waters between the two—or the desires of many (including Wyatt) for CITES to be something more—that poses vexing problems for CITES, its implementation, and attempting to assess its relative success.

For anyone concerned about the fate of wild species, it is understandable why Wyatt extends her analysis and critique beyond the formal remit of the CITES mission; Wyatt is just as concerned about whether CITES is doing its job as whether that job is ultimately what CITES should be doing. “There is more to wildlife's role and value than being extinct or not extinct,” Wyatt writes (p. 126). Wyatt does not aim to definitively answer the question of whether permitting international wildlife trade is actually good for wildlife conservation. Though her opinion that it is not good for wildlife conservation seems clear enough. Wyatt openly ponders whether an explicitly trade-oriented convention that focuses on regulating the commodification of wildlife encourages further commodification of nonhuman life as opposed to curtailing it. “And this perhaps gets to the crux of the problem with and for CITES,” she writes. “A small underfunded convention is tasked with regulating and monitoring a vast industry that has grown and is growing, since CITES was created. It may indeed be the time to modernise, reinvent, or reconsider how international wildlife trade is governed” (p. 118).

Although I agree in spirit with Wyatt's call for a reinvention of CITES, her critique also leads me to an area of concern with Is CITES protecting wildlife?: Wyatt seems disinterested in engaging with and acknowledging the reality that billions of people around the world rely on wildlife (inclusive of plants, animals, fish, and fungi) for their daily subsistence and livelihoods, or how this reliance is mediated by global power imbalances and forms of inequality. At different intervals in the book, Wyatt discusses promising advances in relations between, for instance, First Nations in Canada and CITES over Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) hunting and trade, as just one example (discussed in her case study of Canada in Chapter Six), but the overall scope of wildlife-use globally, and how that use occurs alongside and intersects with international trade, remains generally peripheral. To be clear, CITES is only concerned with international trade, not general wildlife consumption or domestic trade. However, because Wyatt extends her critique of CITES beyond its current remit of international trade to question the ethics and welfare of domestic trade, it felt like there was an important gap in disentangling the many kinds of wildlife trades and forms of consumption that are often binned together in broad analyses and discussions of wildlife consumption. I am left with the sense that Wyatt would rather sidestep this reality that people around the world depend on wildlife—and that they can do so sustainably (even if this is often not the case)—to instead imagine a world where people no longer rely on wildlife altogether.

But just as Wyatt intends to provoke readers with these broader questions about the ethics of trade and consumption in wild species writ large, my critique should be taken in equal measure, as I found Wyatt's text a rewarding journey through what can be a complex convention. For researchers and practitioners whose work relates to legal and illegal wildlife trade, to say nothing of CITES regulations, mechanisms, implementation, enforcement, or compliance, Is CITES Protecting Wildlife? is a fount of knowledge and a vital guide to the nitty-gritty as well as broader machinations of CITES and how CITES comes to find purchase and translation in national-level legislation. This is an important contribution to scholarly as well as practical literature on how CITES works and how it doesn't. Wyatt's book is a much-needed reference to better appreciate and understand the complex workings of a complicated and, at times, vague and flexible international convention. Wyatt also generously provides access to her painstakingly developed spreadsheets of national-level legislation related to CITES implementation. As Wyatt notes, the development of this database and its subsequent content analysis took up a full year of her two-year project, and it will undoubtedly prove a crucial resource for those interested in delving deeper into the workings and translation of CITES implementation, compliance, and enforcement at the national scale (http://drtwyatt.weebly.com). More researchers should follow Wyatt's example in making such valuable datasets publicly available after publication.

If there is an overarching theme to the methodology of the text it is transparency: throughout the book, Wyatt not only makes available several of her datasets, but explicitly discusses limitations and shortcomings in her data and analysis. An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to her research methodology. Methodologically, the book has some shortcomings, particularly in terms of the richness of the author's survey data upon which she makes some of her determinations of CITES' effectiveness, but Wyatt addresses this. I appreciate Wyatt's acknowledgment of the limitations of her dataset, particularly the Delphi iterative survey to which she only received a 5% response rate (32 surveys were completed in Round one, 21 in Round two). Wyatt's description of recruitment methods and its limitations may also be particularly instructive for researchers and students considering online survey-based research approaches—while Wyatt notes hundreds of would-be participants opened the survey tool initially, proportionally very few made it past the first page. Clearly Wyatt would have hoped for a richer dataset to work with, and the geographic biases in terms of lower response rates from key regions like South Asia and Latin America are disappointing.

In many ways, Is CITES Protecting Wildlife? is closer to a technical report than a monograph—rather than suggest this as a valuable addition to undergraduate or graduate courses on conservation and wildlife trade, Wyatt's book is an invaluable resource and reference that should be in the hands of anyone who professionally engages with or researches international wildlife trade and CITES. I sincerely hope this book makes its way into the hands of the Management and Scientific Authorities of the 184 parties to CITES and can only hope a relevant funding agency might work to make that possible.

Unambiguously, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed both legal and illegal wildlife trade into the center of a variety of interrelated conservation, public health, and crime debates; Wyatt specifically sees this moment as an opportunity to assess and evaluate if CITES needs to change. Her assessment is clear: CITES is currently failing to do its job, but even more discouragingly, the job it is failing to do is not adequate to the task of ensuring wildlife trade does not endanger wild species. “After 45 years,” Wyatt writes in the concluding chapter on the future of CITES, “there are still nearly half of CITES parties that have not fully implemented the Convention” (p. 142). This is a sobering finding. Wyatt's survey and interview results suggest a cocktail of reasons: lack of financing and human resources, particularly in countries of the Global South; corruption; lack of political will; and general lack of capacity. While these reasons are perhaps unsurprising, it is just as discouraging to learn how little the parties to CITES have done to support countries with more limited capacities and access to resources. I was surprised to learn just how vague and non-binding the various funding streams for financing CITES were; just as I was discouraged at the dismal response rates from countries in submitting even the most basic (and required) reporting documentation to the CITES Secretariat. CITES, Wyatt observes, is supposed to be 'led by science', but non-detriment findings (NDFs) are few and far between, and where they exist are rarely made accessible.

The primary findings of Wyatt's research are in Chapters 4 and 5 of the book, as well as Chapter 6 which draws on three case study countries—Canada, Indonesia, and South Africa—to examine how some of the practical machinations and challenges of CITES play out 'on the ground'. Wyatt meticulously details for readers the many ways parties to CITES have failed to fully implement (or even partially implement) CITES rules and requirements within national legislation, and her close attention to the functioning of CITES' National Legislation Project (NLP) was especially illuminating. Wyatt does an excellent job of showing us the challenges and pitfalls to implementing CITES at the national level, while also revealing the frustrating reality that a convention meant to curtail illegal wildlife trade has very little in its arsenal to enforce infractions of CITES or penalise perpetrators.

Wyatt succeeds in demonstrating that CITES' today is inadequate for ensuring existing legal international trade in wildlife does not harm the populations of species listed on the CITES appendices. It is very clear from Wyatt's book that if the intent of CITES was to ensure that science about species is used in determining the level of trade in species that might be sustainable, this is not what is generally happening. I was very much hoping, ultimately, to find more hope in reading Wyatt's book; instead, it clearly demonstrates an urgent need to consider what, 45 years since its emergence, CITES ought to be doing differently (besides replacing paper permits with e-permits!). To this end, Wyatt offers a variety of suggestions in the final chapter of her book that are worthy of consideration based on her findings, such as requiring countries to have designated enforcement authorities and improved confiscation programmes, while I remained unconvinced by other suggestions based on the evidence provided; most notably the suggestion to label all wildlife crimes as serious crimes based on UN guidelines with a minimum 4-year prison sentence.

It would be easy to imagine Is CITES Protecting Wildlife? leaves one with a sense that CITES should be abandoned entirely. But, despite the severe limitations Wyatt analyses and describes, she nevertheless maintains that wildlife is still better off with, rather than without, CITES.


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