Social Media, e-Commerce, and CITES

By: Justin Vollmer

A recent study on the role of social media, search engines, and e-commerce in the expansion of global wildlife tracking has caught the attention of the news media.  TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, has provided extensive documentation of this burgeoning market, causing leading tech companies such as Google, Alibaba, Facebook, Instagram, and others to commit to developing and implementing policies and solutions to reduce demand for and access to illegal plant and animal sales.

Prior to 1973, trade in wild plants and animals was largely unregulated, so the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was a revolutionary concept when it was initially proposed in 1963.  Ten years later, the verbiage for CITES was finally agreed upon at a meeting in Washington D.C. that consisted of 80 different member countries responding to a growing demand to control the impacts of global markets on threatened populations.

The goal of CITES is to unite nations under the common goal of safeguarding our flora and fauna from overexploitation by regulating their trade. There are a variety of levels of protection under CITES. For example, some species may be prohibited from being traded as live specimens whereas other could be prohibited from being traded as even parts of the species (e.g., horns, furs).

Today, CITES regulations place varying degrees of protection on over 35,000 species worldwide. The nations that choose to participate in CITES do so voluntarily and are known as “Parties.” CITES is legally binding for each Party that joins despite the fact that it is voluntary. Each Party has to implement CITES law by adopting legislation that implements the various aspects of CITES, but it does not replace national legislation. CITES, which now consists of 183 members, has been successful in its protection of endangered species and, according collected data, it has grown in a fairly stable manner since its inception.

One example of CITES law being implemented on the national legislation level is the United States’ Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA was enacted to work with federal, state, local, and private entities to carry out the provisions of CITES.

CITES mission has remained largely the same since its creation. That is, to protect and sustainably trade the flora and fauna of all nations. The Committees determine the specific missions, such as the allowed or controlled trade of a various species. CITES is constructed of three committees which are the Standing Committee (oversees generally policy and budget), the Animal Committee, and the Plant Committee.

Each committee addresses the concerns and changing demands on their area of focus that help steer the direction of CITES as they make or edit policy. A two week meeting referred to as the Conference of the Parties (CoPs), is held every two to three years. The CoPs is usually hosted by one of the Parties, and participants review progress, make changes to policy, and discuss the future direction of CITES.

Enforcement of CITES regulations is performed by a number of different agencies.   In the United States the primary role of CITES enforcement is done by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which has both Special Agents and Inspectors who perform the various tasks associated with enforcement.

The Special Agents are responsible for the field operations and the more traditional law enforcement duties, while the Inspectors are often operating in airports and ports so they may inspect packages being brought into the US. State Game Wardens are often capable of enforcing CITES regulations as they have been deputized by the USFWS. Other similar entities exist throughout CITES Parties, including the many Park Rangers in Africa, as well as Customs Officials, Police, and Wildlife Inspectors in the European Union.

Underground markets, the Dark Web, and now e-commerce, makes enforcement of CITES incredibly difficult, but the ability of agencies to patrol and enforce in these largely digital environments are improving.

An example of a CITES case involves an essential oil company that was sentenced to pay $760,000 for violating the Lacey Act of 1900 (a U.S. conservation law that prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold) and the ESA when they transported and produced essential oils with rosewood (Dalbergia spp., Aniba spp.) and spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) oils.  Both of these species are protected under CITES. The company did not obtain the proper permits to export them, resulting in a five year probationary period during which it will be subjected to regular audits, the publication of their convictions, and development of a compliance plan in addition to the fine.

Another involves the Reston (Virginia) Zoo and the Virginia Safari Park have both been fined multiple times over the last 25+ years. Violations related to animal cruelty occurred as recently as 2017 yet, despite the accumulation of citations, both of these establishments  retained their licenses and display animals.

Additionally, there can be unintended consequences to enforcement of  regulation and expansion of policy, including an increase in poaching and the rise of organized crime. The European caviar trade, for example, implemented strict fishing regulations on European sturgeon (Huso huso), and requiring caviar be sourced from farm-raised fish. The cost of farming sturgeons increased the cost of caviar immensely, contributing to an increase in organized crime as people illegally harvested sturgeons for their eggs. The illegally taken caviar is then branded as farm raised to meet with the legal mandates. This misrepresentation of caviar is the result of increased profit margins that resulted from the decreased supply due to policy and now pose ongoing issues for law enforcement.

CITES enforcers have to stay current with the increasingly tech-savvy methods used by those who trade in illegal flora a fauna. Cooperation from major e-commerce sites may help to make these products more difficult to obtain but it’s unlikely the problem will disappear. But TRAFFIC find some hope in the fact that two of the organization’s initiatives — a “behavior change toolkit” and a “demand reduction toolkit” — have become top ranking search results on Google.


Justin Vollmer is a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program, and a Natural Resources Specialist at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

CLiGS thanks the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license:  LBMO; Nik Borrow; Tauminingai wongwaychen_c; and TeaMeister.