Black-bellied Pangolin, Central African Republic

Why more countries should adopt digitalization to curb illicit trade in endangered species

Ivonne Higuero, Secretary-General of CITES
Shamika N Sirimanne, Director of Division on Technology and Logistics, UNCTAD

As 2,500 people converge on Panama from 14 to 25 November for the World Wildlife Conference, CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero and UNCTAD’s Director of Technology and Logistics Shamika N. Sirimanne are calling for wider use of digital technologies to help conserve the planet’s endangered species.

Earlier this year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on world leaders to end the “senseless and suicidal war against nature”.

Technological advancements have now created solutions to help stop this war and improve humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Digital technology exists to help us to know what is happening in the world and making better informed decisions about how-to live-in harmony with our rich but fragile ecosystems.

Take wildlife trade for example. Much has changed since the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) came into force in the early 1970s to prevent the world’s commercially traded wildlife species from becoming extinct. Back then, many people were unaware of many of the species in faraway places, or how their purchasing decisions may have reverberating effects on them.

Over time, we have become collectively better educated about the need to preserve the multitude of species on our planet. Many understand why it’s important to conserve biodiversity to ensure future generations can also benefit from nature.

How digital permits help protect endangered species

CITES regulates and controls trade in various species of animals and plants, according to their status in the wild, with strict restrictions against commercial trade in endangered species while allowing a controlled and monitored approach for others.

The process to regulate the export or import requires both transparency and rigour at the borders to allow legal trade to proceed while preventing illicit wildlife trade.

However, for many countries – exporters and importers alike – border control may still be a human-intensive process and the paperwork to process the transfer of species from one territory to another is done by hand.

As countries implement the national single window approach for trade controls in general, some countries are digitalizing this process. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has also posed challenges for in-person trade processes, which also accelerated countries looking into the automation of trade permitting.

While dematerialization often implies a reduction in time and simplification of trade processes, the use of technology also improves the quality of risk assessment and inspection by the border agencies, including customs, helping combat illegal trade in wildlife specimens.

But how does this work in practice? Consider a customs officer presented with an animal or plant that appears to be exotic, maybe a protected species. How do they know that the certificate accompanying the animal or plant in front of them is legal or that the species being traded is the same as the one the paperwork claims it to be?

Since many countries currently rely on traditional paper-based means to process permits, human error can creep in, allowing the fraudulent trade in endangered species.

But an electronic permit system linked to a customs management system can help customs officers, importers and exporters ensure the right species are traded in the right quantities.

It facilitates coordination between customs and the Management Authority – the government agency responsible for CITES matters. Furthermore, the data generated from the electronic permit systems allows accurate reporting of trade in CITES-listed species, allowing informed decision making for sustainable, legal and traceable trade.

Today, the 183 countries and the EU that are Parties to CITES are looking into the electronic permit system, and exploring solutions that would be cost-effective and interoperable among countries, which helps customs officers spot illegal attempts to trade in protected species and enforce applicable international trade laws.

One such solution is the eCITES@ASYCUDA base solution. Developed by the CITES Secretariat and the UN Conference on Trade and Development’s ASYCUDA programme, the system allows a streamlined and automated flow of CITES trade from permit application, review, issuance to border validation; meaning the trade in regulated animals and plants is done in a legal, traceable and sustainable manner in the country.

In Sri Lanka, which was the first country to implement eCITES@ASYCUDA base solution, the piloting of the digital permitting solution has increased annual approval rates for such permits by 17% from 2020 to 2021. This shows that the system is facilitating legal trade, while helping curb illicit trade, and therefore boosting the conservation of CITES-listed species in Sri Lanka.

The average processing time for permits in Sri Lanka has also fallen from 120 hours in 2020 to 39 hours today. Adopting such a digital solution also provides better data for improved analysis and monitoring. Prior to the roll-out of the solution in 2020, no statistics were available.

Beyond Sri Lanka, the system is also being piloted in Mozambique, where similar improvements are foreseen, as well as a few other countries that have embarked in testing the system.

Global problems require global solutions

Fundamentally, the more countries around the world that use electronic permitting solutions, the more sustainable international trade in wildlife species can be. And the greater the level of protection for endangered species globally.

Global problems require global solutions and international cooperation is essential for the conservation of certain wild animal and plant species against overexploitation through international trade.

Digital systems can also facilitate the exchange of electronic permits and information across borders, improving international cooperation, increasing transparency and preventing the use of fraudulent permits.

Such a system would particularly be useful in developing countries, which are home to many valuable and threatened species, but may not have adequate staff for permitting and border controls, and need access to systems that are efficient and effective as they fight the criminals seeking to bypass those controls.

The international community has an important role to play in testing and moving towards innovative technological solutions that are available to all countries, so that we improve the conservation and sustainable use of our natural resources together, while leaving no one behind.

As the UN Secretary-General has said several times, our health and the health of the natural world – and indeed, our planet – are all intricately linked.

Using digital solutions to support nature conservation is fundamentally an act of human interest and at the same time, our responsibility to leave a healthy planet for future generations.

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