Covid-19 and Illegal Wildlife Trade: Where does the Law Fail and How Digital Technologies can help?

Covid-19 and Illegal Wildlife Trade: Where does the Law Fail and How Digital Technologies can help?
2020-09-16

This is the fifth in a blog post series being produced under the auspices of the Centre for Commercial Law in response to the coronavirus crisis. This blog post was first published on the NERC/UKRI ‘Constructing a Digital Environment’ Programme Blog and is re-posted here with their kind permission. 

The exact origin of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic has not yet been identified, however there are indications that it may be linked to pangolin. Pangolins are protected at the highest level under international environmental law via a ban on international trade in all pangolin species since 2017, however they are still considered to be the world’s most trafficked mammal. This has put illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade under the spotlight.

It is estimated that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic diseases, meaning that they are transmitted to human populations from wildlife, and the health of ecosystems plays a major role in this transmission. Along with activities like deforestation, landscape fragmentation, habitat degradation and destruction, illegal wildlife trade is one of the biggest threats to the health of ecosystems. It brings humans and wildlife into close contact along the trade route in the natural habitat where the wild fauna and flora are captured or collected, in transport where they cross borders between countries and in marketplaces where they are sold (usually under poor sanitary and phytosanitary conditions). Illegal wildlife trade is a pressing issue at the global level with proceeds estimated to be worth up to $23 billion a year, making it the world’s fourth most lucrative trafficking industry (after drug, human and weapon trafficking) with high demand driving high prices. Illegal wildlife trade is also often linked with adverse business practices such as corruption.

Concerns over wildlife trade are not new and indeed they led to the adoption of one of the oldest international agreements concerning international trade in wildlife, namely the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The CITES was signed in 1973 and entered into force in 1975 with the aim of ensuring international trade does not threaten the survival of endangered wild animals and plants. As of August 2020, CIITES has 183 parties (ie 182 states and 1 Regional Economic Integration Organisation, namely the European Union (EU)). This is a very high number of signatories which is usually an indicator of success for an international treaty of this nature. The effectiveness of the CITES is aimed to be enhanced by other legal means at regional and international level, such as free trade agreements (FTAs) that include provisions, like Article 270(2) of the EU-Colombia-Peru FTA, under which the parties of FTAs reaffirm their commitment to effectively implement the CITES in their laws and practices. Other international legal frameworks as well as domestic legal frameworks are also in place to regulate wildlife trade, though with scope for improvement.    

Against this background, however, concerns over wildlife trade are increasing in parallel to the rise in the scope and volume of wildlife trade and the emergence of infectious zoonotic diseases in today’s extremely interconnected globalised world. These concerns are justified in the light of the second edition of the World Wildlife Crime Report recently published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which alarmingly indicates that virtually every country in the world is playing a role in the illegal wildlife trade which led to wildlife crime becoming a global, lucrative and extremely widespread business, despite various legal frameworks being in place. As identified in the Report, there are practical challenges due to low the level of detection of illegal wildlife trade, the involvement of transnational organised crime groups and corruption in supply chains and the increased use of cyberspace for trade (where traders’ anonymity as well as jurisdictional and regulatory issues over the internet pose problems for law enforcement). This indicates a gap between law adoption and implementation at a regulatory level and law enforcement at the practical level, which undermines the effectiveness of the existing legal framework including the CITES.

This raises a question as to whether and how digital technologies can help fill this gap. Leveraging science and technology to combat illegal wildlife trade has been getting attention in recent years. The United Kingdom (UK) Government has been also working on pioneering digital technologies to tackle this global challenge. In the 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference hosted by the UK Government, three key areas were highlighted for the adoption of technology; (1) in the field to stopping poachers killing endangered animals, (2) at borders as vast numbers of illegal wildlife products pass through customs every day and (3) online as sellers use cyberspace social media and the web to create a marketplace for illegal wildlife products. In a report prepared by the Royal Society in the same year on Science: tackling the illegal wildlife trade, five possible scientific and technological interventions were identified; (1) risk profiling through interrogation of shipping documentation, (2) smart shipping container technologies, (3) optical recognition approaches, (4) development of biological and chemical identification capability for use in the field and (5) environmental isotope analysis. The Royal Society Report also identified four cross-cutting themes to help make technological interventions more successful; (1) accessible, affordable innovation and fit-for-purpose products, (2) wildlife crime as a technological test bed, (3) digital infrastructure and global technology platforms and (4) open data and databases. These interventions, which were deemed in the report to have a reasonable chance of implementation and impact, would help fill the gap between law adoption and implementation at the regulatory level and law enforcement at the practical level, by providing the necessary tools to detect and combat illegal wildlife trade and to reduce human error and adverse business practices via increased intelligence, automation and transparency. However, this would also require the relevant legal framework to support and facilitate the use of science and technology in the manner proposed, in order to ensure legal certainty and predictability. The legal framework would also need to support commitments to international legislative and judicial cooperation.

Ensuring a sustainable, safe, and legal wildlife trade is crucial for the Covid-19 response and recovery, for reducing the risk of future pandemics given the linkages between wildlife trade and zoonotic diseases, and also for contributing to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals. Technology, particularly forms of digital technologies like distributed ledger and artificial intelligence, can play a significant role in providing law with necessary tools to strengthen law enforcement and therefore its capabilities should be explored in addressing illegal wildlife trade.  

*Dr Burcu Yüksel Ripley (Lecturer in Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Commercial Law at the University of Aberdeen, and NERC Constructing a Digital Environment (CDE) Fellow of the Digital Environment Expert Network)

Published by School of Law, University of Aberdeen

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