International Trade

International trade - Photo by Rod Waddington

International trade in wildlife generates billions of dollars annually and is a continuing threat to the survival of countless animal species. The diverse trade includes live animals (and plants), as well as goods derived from their parts, for such purposes as food and medicine, clothing, jewelry and other ornaments, research, and for entertainment—such as for exhibition in zoos and as exotic pets.

Illicit wildlife trade can be highly profitable, and was linked in a 2008 US Congressional Research Service Report to organized crime and drug trafficking. It is notorious, in fact, for being the third most lucrative illegal commerce behind drugs and arms trafficking. When humans covet threatened and endangered species or their parts, it puts tremendous pressure on ecosystems and their inhabitants.

Together with mounting devastation from poaching and habitat loss (including losses resulting from human-induced climate change), local populations are being severely depleted; in many cases, entire species are nearing extinction. Some, like the Japanese sea lion, hunted for the use of its organs in traditional medicines, have been completely wiped out. India’s already endangered tigers are further threatened by demand from abroad for their skins, claws, teeth, bones and other body parts for perceived medicinal benefits. The African grey parrot, an incredible mimic, found in East, Central and West Africa, continues to be illegally trapped for the international wild bird trade. Bears, especially the endangered Asiatic black bear, are targeted for their gallbladders and bile, which are used in traditional Asian medicines and cosmetics. An estimated 73–100 million sharks are killed yearly to meet the demand for shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, leading to the depletion of many shark species.


Regulation of wildlife trade is essential to stem potentially irreversible reductions to wildlife populations. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was established as a global treaty to regulate the worldwide trade in endangered and threatened wildlife so as to ensure its survival. Countries join CITES voluntarily but by joining, member countries agree to be bound by the Convention and adopt domestic legislation intended to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level.

CITES has three appendices that list species based on the degree to which they are threatened: Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered. They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial, for instance, for scientific research. Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction at the moment but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a member country that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. The Convention is managed by a secretariat administered by the United Nations Environment Programme, whose primary role is to coordinate, advise and administer the working of the Convention as well as monitor implementation.

Over 170 countries have joined CITES since its inception, and over 30,000 species are listed as “protected” under the treaty. Despite such broad participation and coverage, safeguarding of species under CITES has fallen short of intent. Some countries—responding to the intense demand for threatened and endangered species—seek to undermine CITES or weaken the protections it affords.

Implementation of CITES requirements by member countries is also problematic. For instance, member countries exporting Appendix II species are required to make a non-detriment finding (NDF) to ensure that trade will not harm the species in the wild. While CITES has adopted broad standards for NDFs and engages in capacity-building to help countries meet their NDF responsibilities, complete compliance is compromised by the fact that member countries assert the right to determine their own NDF protocol and procedures. CITES currently does not require NDFs to be in writing, made publicly available, or even provided to importing countries as proof the trade is legal.

Valuable and highly exploited wildlife is suffering for the sake of commercial trade. CITES is currently failing to safeguard many of the threatened and endangered plants and animals in dire need of protection. From bluefin tuna who have been unsustainably fished for decades and whose populations have declined precipitously in the last 50 years, to vastly depleted pink and red corals collected to make jewelry, the continued international trade in many species severely compromises their chances of survival. Decisions at CITES should be based on science and motivated by the desire to conserve species. Politics, palates, economics, and vanity, however, are often primary factors in decisions over which species get listed and what proposals are put forth. In 2010, a new secretariat took the helm of CITES. It is hoped that the new leadership will favor science and conservation over profits and consumption. Time will tell whether CITES will evolve into a treaty that truly regulates sustainable trade and offers species threatened by international trade the protections they need and deserve.

Clark R. Bavin Wildlife Law Enforcement Awards
The Bavin Awards have been presented to those demonstrating remarkable effort to protect wildlife for nearly 20 years and are given in honor of the late US Fish and Wildlife Service's Mr. Clark R. Bavin, who was a pioneer in wildlife law enforcement. His far-sightedness and willingness to use novel yet complex sting operations to catch wildlife smugglers was ahead of its time and a model for today's wildlife crime fighters.