Uncertainty, Precaution, and Adaptive Management in Wildlife Trade

Wildlife trade is big business. Legal international trade in just some of the wild animals and plants traded worldwide is estimated at $350 to $530 million per year. The United States is the primary importer of virtually every major taxon of these species, including mammals, reptiles, fish, and plants. When it comes to illegal trade, estimates of its value range from $7 to $23 billion annually, covering wild animals, fish, and timber. This illegal trade fuels organized crime and militia and terrorist groups. In the face of all this pressure, some wild species appear to be traded in sustainable amounts. Others are headed for extinction. In this high-stakes world, both uncertainty and value conflicts abound. With scientific and socioeconomic uncertainty, data, inferences, and predictions can all be contested. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) manages international trade in wild at-risk species and their parts through a combination of international decision-making and national and sub-national implementation, banning and regulating trade in species with the goal of avoiding extinction due to international trade. Every decision taken by CITES parties—whether on the floor of the regular meetings or by Scientific Authorities designated by the state—has to deal with uncertainty due to data gaps, the effect of human activity, and complexity, among other things. This Article addresses how the parties to CITES have dealt with uncertainty by analyzing their approach to precaution and adaptive management. The Article concludes that the parties have shied away from adopting the precautionary principle or approach and have instead incorporated any precautionary elements into monitoring and adaptive management. This way of implementing precaution emphasizes uncertainty arising from data gaps. However, uncertainty also arises from complexity and indeterminacy, and cannot always be resolved by more data. Thus, uncertainty is not always temporary. For the parties to ensure that international trade does not result in species extinction, they need to be informed by science and aware of its limitations. Incorporating precaution within adaptive management is therefore necessary for decision-making on wildlife trade, but it is not sufficient. The Article argues that fully acknowledging the range of sources of uncertainty requires both a first role for precaution within adaptive management approaches—as the parties are doing, albeit less explicitly—and a second role for precaution at the point of final decision-making.