Consumption First? Wildlife Trade Policy in the United States

Despite measures to stop the practice, the trade in ivory continues to thrive around the world.It was hardly a hunt as six or more people, including two wealthy Americans, crashed through the dry brush somewhere in South Africa. The first victim, a female African lion, looked curiously at her followers as she was hit broadside by a bullet. The second, a large male lion, was shot at close range.

As the life drained from his body, he fell off a 25-foot cliff. In South Africa, where wild lions are illegal to hunt, these victims of the lucrative trophy hunting industry were born and raised in captivity, where they became accustomed to and reliant on humansonly to become targets for wealthy hunters. At the end of this safari, four animals had died to become trophies in someone's house.

Understanding CITES

Despite measures to stop the practice, the trade in ivory continues to thrive around the world.

Though it likely did not make the newspaper headlines, March 3, 1973 was a noteworthy day in the history of wildlife conservation: 21 countries signed the Washington Treaty in an effort to control the burgeoning international trade in wildlife and wildlife products. Better known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), this treaty created a legal framework for promoting wildlife conservation through the regulation of wildlife trade. One hundred and sixty-nine countries are now signatories to CITES, and despite the imperfections in its scope, breadth and implementation, they are ostensibly complying with its provisions.

Because CITES only serves as a regulatory body, the legal wildlife trade is a booming business. Approximately 5,000 species of animals and 28,000 species of plants are "protected" under CITES through a permitting system that largely prohibits trade in many of the world's most imperiled species, while regulating trade in other species as a "sustainable" use. However, CITES has not tempered the illegal trade in plants and wildlife, which remains a significant threat to global biodiversity. With financial profits only behind illegal arms and drugs sales, the trafficking in illicit wildlife has become a multi-billion dollar business.

Even for legal trade, a variety of loopholes have been established over the years through resolutions and decisions made by CITES member countries. These loopholes depend on the species' origin and use. Though they are often used to facilitate legal trade, they have also been abused by unscrupulous wildlife dealers and businesses to trade illegally in a wide variety of species. Such loopholes complicate law enforcement efforts and ensure that a large percentage of illicit trade is never detected. Sadly, in addition to the remote potential of poachers even being caught, penalties are lenient for those who are discovered breaking the law.

Though CITES was originally intended to regulate wildlife trade, today both legal and illegal trading are at all-time highs. Improved transportation systems, booming economies in many parts of the world, increasing personal wealth, and an ever-expanding number of businesses selling or relying on wildlife or wildlife products are driving this trade to the detriment of wild species and their habitats around the world. In concert with a worldwide apathy regarding the destruction of our environment, as well as substantial profits to be made by governments and businesses engaged in wildlife trade, these are significant contributing factors to our worldwide biodiversity crisis.


It remains to be determined whether the American hunters secured the required Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) documents to import their trophies into the United States. If they did, they would not be alone, since the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)—the federal agency that administers both CITES and the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—issues such permits routinely to allow the import of a virtual ark of trophy-hunted species.

In 2005, the FWS allowed the import of over 17,000 sport-hunted trophies of CITES-listed species. The agency's policies and practices have consistently placed the interests of hunters over wildlife. The Safari Club International—the world's largest organization of trophy hunters—has influence and connections throughout the FWS that few other groups enjoy. And according to information recently obtained by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), these connections are now under investigation.

As America's wealthiest hunters travel the world shooting wildlife, the FWS continues to churn out the necessary permits, if permits are even required. For species listed on CITES Appendix II, there is often no permit required, since the trophy needs only to be cleared through a port of entry. The number of species that can be imported into the United States as trophies reads like a list of the world's most charismatic species. In 2005, it included 856 baboons, 237 wolves, over 9,100 black bears, 60 polar bears, 318 lynx, 384 African lions, 508 leopards, 44 African elephants, 485 zebras, 318 hippos, more than 800 pintail ducks, and 1,544 Sandhill cranes.

US wildlife trade involves far more than dead animals. The United States allows the import and export of CITES-listed live animals and plants, animal pelts, timber and a bevy of products such as carvings, shoes, handbags and jewelry made from wildlife parts. While the exact total of live and dead animals, plants and wildlife products imported and exported into the United States is unknown, there is no question that the country is the world's leading consumer of wildlife and wildlife products. In 2002, for example, legally declared shipments of live, wild-caught animals into the United States included more than 38,000 mammals, 365,000 birds, 2 million reptiles and 49 million amphibians. The demand for live wildlife and wildlife products in the United States is driving both the legal and illicit trade that is contributing to the imperilment of many species around the globe.

The US government is known worldwide as a leader in conservation, but its wildlife trade policies and practices are weak and implemented inadequately. Considering its enormous wealth and significant worldwide influence, the United States should be a leader in tackling the ongoing wildlife trade crisis by establishing far more restrictive wildlife trade laws to unilaterally address many of the deficiencies in CITES.

For example, non-detriment findings (NDFs) made by exporting countries for Appendix II species should be submitted to the FWS for review before the export is allowed. NDFs are supposed to verify that the trade in those species will not harm their survival in the wild. While the requirement looks good on paper, in reality, it is not implemented consistently by any country. The FWS rarely, if ever, sees such findings, making it impossible for the agency to know that they exist, whether they are in writing, or whether they are based on credible scientific evidence. While such faith-based trade policies may have been the common practice for decades, wildlife trade in the 21st century must be based on science and accountability—not speculation, convenience and deception.

The agency also must make its wildlife trade decisions completely transparent, both by informing the public about all applications submitted for all CITES and ESA-listed species, and by soliciting public comment on all applications. At present, with few exceptions, the American public is only provided a chance to comment on applications involving species listed as endangered under the ESA. The FWS operates without any public oversight in regards to CITES Appendix II and even Appendix I species, if they are not also listed as endangered under the ESA.

While stronger regulations, increased accountability and more transparency are needed to improve the program, effective enforcement of wildlife trade laws is also essential. With the significant profit margins to be made, the illegal trade in wildlife is flourishing, and even the so-called legal wildlife trade is rife with corruption, fraud and blatant disregard for both international and national laws. For years, the budget for the FWS law enforcement operation has been repeatedly cut thereby significantly compromising the ability of federal wildlife cops to identify, investigate, capture and prosecute wildlife criminals. Shockingly, according to a recent report by the US Department of the Interior Inspector General, there are only 208 FWS special agents and 111 wildlife inspectors for the entire United States.

These agents are committed to enforcing the country's wildlife laws, but the sheer lack of agents may, in part, explain the serious problem with the illicit trade in wildlife and wildlife products. Indeed, according to a 1994 report from the US General Accounting Office, the FWS estimates that it is detecting "less than 10 percent of violations associated with declared shipments of wildlife, and a much lower percentage of undeclared shipments." To make matters worse, it has been reported that the FWS has decided to cut costs by dismantling its Special Operations law enforcement division, which conducts undercover wildlife investigations.

AWI has provided the FWS with a litany of ideas of how to strengthen its wildlife trade regulations, and we have called on Congress to provide an increased allocation of federal funds to bolster the agency's enforcement capabilities. But there is also a need for a fundamental reform within the FWS to embrace conservation over consumption, to promote leadership over apathy, and to take a stand for the world's wildlife. Only by enacting far more restrictive wildlife trade laws can it force other countries to improve their wildlife management, law enforcement and scientific research programs if they want to continue to engage in wildlife trade with the United States.