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Combating the trade in endangered species through CITES

Peter H. Sand

PETER H. SAND is the Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). He was formerly in charge of environmental legislation at FAO.

The illegal trade in furs, trophies and protected animals now has higher profit margins than the drug traffic.

· In February 1979 special agents of the US Fish and Wildlife Service seized more than 17 500 illegally harvested fur pelts on a ranch in Texas. This 2.5-ton haul, smuggled across the Rio Grande River, included 1 556 Mexican bobcat skins destined for European markets, where a single coat made from 10-15 pelts can sell for as much as $20 000. The ranch owner and four Mexican smugglers were arrested.

· In March 1979 French nature conservation authorities seized eight chimpanzees, three pythons and two crocodiles illegally shipped to Bordeaux. The importer, a circus owner, was fined 10 000 francs, and the animals were returned to West Africa.

· In April 1979 German (FR) customs officers seized 3 600 rare cactus plants from passengers on a single charter flight arriving at Frankfurt airport. They also took 141 rhinoceros horns mailed to Bremen under false labels from Kenya with a reported black market value of several million deutsche marks. Court proceedings have begun against the cactus tourists while the rhino case, which turned out to have ramifications in Thailand, is now in the hands of Interpol.

· In August 1979 Indian customs inspectors at Calcutta airport seized a shipment of 150 000 snake skins and 500 otter furs bound for Frankfurt. Investigations are pending in both countries.

This recent chronology of enforcement stems from a single legal instrument, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Concluded at Washington on 3 March 1973, the Convention took effect on 1 July 19,75. It now has more than 60 member countries, already including most of the important exporters and importers of wild animals and plants.

The aim of the Convention is to establish world-wide controls over trade in endangered wildlife and wildlife products in recognition of the fact that unrestricted commercial exploitation is one of the major threats to the survival of many species. For this purpose, the endangered species of wild animals and plants are listed in three appendixes to the Convention. Depending upon how much protection is needed, the export and import of either live specimens or of parts and derivatives such as whale oil or ivory are either prohibited or subject to uniform permit requirements recognized by all member countries.

Each party to the Convention has designated specific national authorities to administer the licensing and control system. These authorities cooperate directly with their foreign counterparts unfettered by the constraints of diplomatic channels. This unique global network of wildlife administrations has made possible some of the spectacular recent seizures.

The small international secretariat in Switzerland-two scientists, a lawyer, and two secretaries-functions merely as a "switchboard" to facilitate direct contacts between countries. It is attached to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which administers the Convention on behalf of the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). With funding from UNEP and from member governments and in close cooperation with IUCN scientists in the Survival Service Commission, the secretariat also assists in trade monitoring and information exchange. In addition, it services the biennial meetings of the parties (Berne 1976, (Geneva 1977, San Jose/Costa Rica 1979).

The odds against success are enormous. According to the Director of Munich's Hellabrunn Zoo, Dr. Arnd Wünschmann, "the illegal trade in furs, trophies and protected animals now has higher profit margins than the drug traffic." Significantly, recent Australian investigations into bird smuggling revealed connections with organized crime in the United States. When member governments began to exchange export and import documents and to compare their national trade statistics, they discovered curious discrepancies. These, in some cases, were traced back to forgeries and corruption. The task of harmonizing permit forms and procedures is now in the hands of a Technical Expert Committee, which held its first meeting at Bonn in January 1980. The committee works in liaison with Interpol and the Brussels-based Customs Cooperation Council (CCC).

CALCUTTA AIRPORT CUSTOMS INSPECTOR a shipment of 150 000 snake skins seized on the way to Frankfurt

SHOP WINDOW IN BANGKOK leopards and a cobra

The Convention seeks to draw a clear line between illegal traffic and black markets on one side and legitimate trade in renewable natural resources on the other. A number of countries have well-managed programmes of wildlife conservation and utilization. They are able to harvest their excess wildlife without endangering species. In fact, such game management is a form of game protection against biological problems.

To Third World countries in particular, these programmes may be important development factors and a significant source of foreign exchange earnings on the world market. International authorization of trade in products derived from national wildlife management projects thus tends to be the focus of debate at the biennial meetings of the Conference of CITES Parties, such as the one held in March 1979 in Costa Rica. Here, for example, the Conference refused to authorize vicuña trade by Peru and Chile but did approve trade in local crocodilians in the United States and Papua New Guinea.

Not surprisingly, the decisions of the CITES Conference are taken under a considerable amount of pressure, both from private conservation groups and from economic lobby groups ranging from the luxury fur and leather industries to pet dealers, safari parks and biomedical research establishments.

Enforcement of the CITES Convention is improving in many countries, as can be seen by an impressive confiscation record. But a number of problems and "loopholes" remain. One of these is the level of sanctions and penalties for violation of the Convention. While confiscation is undoubtedly a good deterrent, monetary fines are often woefully inadequate to offset the calculated risk the offenders are taking. For example, in 1979, DM 4 900 for smuggling of a live Himalaya snow leopard, and £550 for offering for sale of three leopard skins were low indeed compared to the rewards of the market-place. Even some of the prison sentences rendered by US courts have been described as derisory in proportion to the profits made. For example, eight months in jail and fines totalling $87 500 were levied for an alligator skin transaction in 1978 involving an estimated street sales value of more than $1 million. At a time when penal sanctions for "environmental crimes" are being introduced in many countries, contraventions of the Washington Convention continue to be dealt with as misdemeanours.

Another dilemma arises because of the very success of enforcement measures. National authorities often simply do not know what to do with the confiscated animals, plants or products. The usual customs practice of public auctions has been discouraged by the CITES Conference, at least as regards the most endangered species whose auction would only stimulate the market further. Short of destroying them, the parties thus had to find other ways of dealing with these specimens. For products and derivatives there are non-commercial exchange programmes. Live specimens are assigned to scientific centres or rehabilitation in the wild. Obviously, the problem is far from being solved.

The magnitude of the problem is best seen in Europe, which has traditionally been the centre of international trade in endangered wildlife and wildlife products. Europe is important both as a consumer market and as the hub for re-exports and the transit trade.

The Federal Republic of Germany alone accounts for approximately 60 percent of the world's fur imports and for a proportionately high share of trade in spotted cat skins (1). When the shares of the other major West European fur traders (United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland. Netherlands, France, Italy) are added, Western Europe, conservatively speaking, accounts for 80 percent of the market for all endangered species of wild felines. This amounts to about half a million skins per year, ranging from South American ocelot to Siberian lynx. In the Federal Republic of Germany only about half of the 360 000 raw fur skins of wild felines imported in 1978 were properly identified; many are suspected to have come from Brazil, where exports are prohibited.

Ivory imports recorded by official customs statistics in the major West European trade countries (Federal Republic of Germany, France, Spain. United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium) totalled 180 tons in 1977 (2). While this figure includes a large portion of re-exports to Asia, it does not include the huge additional volume of ivory passing through Belgium and France "in transit" and hence not :recorded by customs statistics. Europe consumes about 50 tons of ivory per year for such products and uses as carvings, jewellery, piano keys, billiard balls and interior decoration. Western Europe's official 1977 imports of raw ivory may be estimated to represent at least 10 000 dead elephants. Heavy poaching because of this good market is resulting in a rapid decline in large tusked elephants. Furthermore, this means that poachers will kill more elephants to achieve their ivory goal. Besides the USSR, five European nations (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Portugal and Spain) are still active in whaling and in the export of whale products. In addition, Cyprus exported more than 2 700 tons of whale meat to Japan in 1978 as a result of whaling operations by the now infamous MS "Sierra" (3). (The Sierra is registered in the name of a Liechtenstein company, has a Norwegian and South African crew and operates out of Spanish and Portuguese ports in violation of the International Whaling Commission's regulations.) Europe also remains a major consumer of whale products, especially sperm oil which is used for the processing of luxury leather, as an industrial lubricant, and for cosmetic products. The Federal Republic of Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and Italy together imported more than l 500 tons of whale oil, mainly from Japan, in 1978, equivalent to some 2 000 whales.

Contrary to industry claims, only a small fraction of crocodiles originate from "crocodile farms." Although up to 50 percent of those caught are eventually lost or unusable, the vast majority of crocodiles sold for hides come from the wild. Once again, Western [Europe, together with Japan, is the principal market. Of the estimated two million crocodilian hides traded annually in international commerce, approximately 1.2. million (60 percent) are consumed by tanners in Western Europe: France 500 000, Italy 400 000 and the Federal Republic of Germany 250 000 (4). The European share is equally high as regards snake skins, marine turtles and other reptilian products.

ZURICH arrival of a shipment of wild animal skins

BREMEN consignment of 140 rhinoceros horns stopped by customs authorities

GUADELOUPE dead caiman alligators from Brazil

Europe also maintains a leading position in the international traffic in exotic live animals and wild plants. The consumers are pet traders, safari zoos, biomedical research establishments and scientific and pseudo-scientific collectors for every imaginable species. European expatriates often control the local collection and trade supply of endangered wildlife species in Africa and Latin America, and affluent tourists from Europe have be come the predominant clients for various wildlife products which are now exported as souvenirs from developing countries.

Several European countries such as Belgium, Austria, Spain and Yugoslavia are still outside the scope of application of CITES. This has resulted in a shifting of trade routes. Commercial dealers from CITES countries circumvent the Convention either by way of subsidiaries and affiliates in non-member countries or by "transit" operations through free-port areas outside the reach of national customs controls. Furthermore, under pressure from local luxury leather industries, four European countries - Federal Republic of Germany. France, Italy and Switzerland-jointly refused in 1979 to grant full CITES protection to the valuable saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), and, in the case of France and Italy, to other endangered crocodilians and marine turtles. Although the Convention's "opting-out" clause has previously been used by other member countries (e.g., for certain whale species), this was the first time global protection of a highly endangered species was virtually undermined by industrial lobbyists in importing countries. Even more important, perhaps, is the disruptive effect which these national reservations will have on current efforts toward implementation of the Convention within the European Community.

On the whole, however, the Convention may be said to have demonstrated its practical viability during its first four years of operation. The coverage is now nearly universal, and the attention of the parties is therefore turning to improvements in national enforcement aids such as training courses and 'identification manuals'' for customs officers. Perhaps the most important aspect of enforcement, still largely neglected, is public pressure as a means of including voluntary compliance. Very few people seem to be aware of the magnitude of the problem, and an education programme could potentially have dramatic results.

CALCUTTA AIRPORT skins of tigers and leopards confiscated from an Italian trader


1. IUCN/SSC TRAFFIC Group. The international trade in Felidae 1977. CITES Doc. 2.6, Annex 2 (Morges, 1 979).

2. Figures based on I. Parker, The Ivory Trade, Nairobi, 1979.

3. People's Trust for Endangered Species. Pirate whaling. London, 1979.

4. KING, F.W. The wildlife trade. In Wildlife and America, ed. G.P. Brokaw, Washington, D.C., 1978.

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