Policy ForumConservation

Improve customs systems to monitor global wildlife trade

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Science  17 Apr 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6232, pp. 291-292
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa3141

The volume of international trade in wildlife commodities is immense and, in many cases, is rising (1). Although there are already wildlife trade data sources [e.g., the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Trade Database and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS)], coverage of traded species or countries involved is not comprehensive. This can undermine supply-chain monitoring and fast aggregation of data to inform policy-making (2). We discuss whether widely used, but limited, international customs codes and governance might evolve to address these gaps.

The Harmonized System (HS) administered by the World Customs Organization (WCO) accounts for more than 98% of global trade volume and is arguably the most comprehensive data set available for global commodity trade. Each commodity type is assigned a universal six-digit code, and individual member nations of WCO can assign two or more additional digits as domestic codes for tariff purposes (e.g., HS designated 0106.20 for “live reptile”; Hong Kong domestic HS designated 0106.20.10 for “live snakes”). Although not designed for global commodity tracking (3), the HS has been providing trade flow information to researchers and agencies, because external trade data for wildlife is usually limited (4, 5).

However, a considerable proportion of wildlife commodities eludes monitoring via HS because they are classified into broad categories that cannot be disaggregated into smaller and well-defined taxonomic units (6). To assess the trade volume of such categories in the current HS classification (2012 edition), we analyzed the global commodities trade statistics of 2012 (7). There were 308 HS subheadings composed of wild animals, fisheries commodities, and plant and forestry products. We classified the taxonomic level of each subheading into class, order, family, genus, and species. Descriptions that were not in taxonomic terms or that covered more than one class were designated as “general.” Subheadings composed of largely domestic or captive-bred animals (e.g., bovine, poultry, and farmed fur) were excluded from analysis. Aquaculture fishery commodities were not excluded because they were indistinguishable from wild-caught fish in HS statistics (table S1).

Proportion of classification levels for animal, fisheries, and plant commodities.

“General” stands for classification that is not in taxonomic terms or covers more than one class. Data are based on the HS global import values in 2012 (7). USD, U.S. dollars. See the supplementary materials.

Global import of wildlife products reported to the HS amounted to U.S.$187.3 billion, with fishery commodities accounting for $113.4 billion (60.6%), $71.1 billion (38.0%) for plant and forestry products, and $2.8 billion (1.5%) for nonfishery animal products. About 22% of total global imports of wildlife commodities were classified into general categories. Animal commodities were the least resolved, with 67.7% concealed in general categories. This was substantially higher than plant and forestry products (47.9%) and fishery commodities (4.6%) (see the chart). The high specificity of fishery statistics implies much room for improvement for both animal and forestry trade sectors.

Timber trade statistics are particularly poor (8), despite huge trade volume. In the upcoming 2017 update of HS, the “tropical wood” product will no longer be limited to the current 86 wood types and will cover all wood species produced in the tropics. This amendment reflects the growth of the forestry sector and the increasing species diversity involved in international trade. Improving taxonomic information is crucial for estimating forest consumption rates, as well as energy and carbon balance (9). The statistics of fisheries being better than other sectors is partially due to multilateral fishery management agreements that coerce fishers into systemically reporting their catch. Trade organizations and governance bodies such as the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) should deepen their role in enhancing industry reporting standards.

The insufficient specificity of wildlife commodities in the HS stems from commodities listing requirements. To warrant a HS subheading, annual global trade should exceed $50 million. Some wild populations may be threatened even when traded well below the HS threshold. Although this threshold criterion is exempted for commodities of environmental and social concern, there is no clear or agreed-upon scientific basis for determining the exemption (e.g., the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List status). Many wildlife commodities that marginally fit the exemption criteria are thus either not listed owing to their low values or delisted when trade volumes dip to low levels. For instance, there is a glaring absence of major taxonomic groups such as amphibians and live corals; no codes are reserved for many frequently traded CITES species used in traditional medicine, such as orchids, seahorses, and turtles.

Although countries may list specific commodities on their national customs tariff codes, traceability suffers when they are exported to countries that do not have specific customs codes. Patterns of species trade and consumption vary between regions and cultures. Unlike staple commodities, most wildlife products are traded between a few countries, limiting incentives for collaborative monitoring. There is increasing necessity to enhance the specificity of the HS to strengthen enforcement and monitoring to help meet broader conservation targets—for example, Aichi Biodiversity Targets (5, 9). CITES Parties in 2013 directed the standing committee to liaise with the WCO with regard to inclusion of CITES-listed species in the HS to enhance enforcement and safeguard endangered species (10).

The HS is reviewed every 5 years. With only six digits to classify the large variety of goods, vacant codes have been quickly depleted, especially for the fisheries chapter. Although unambiguous products—such as chemicals or machineries with distinct functions—are easier to accept into the HS, national customs' capability to verify compliance with HS reporting for wildlife commodities varies greatly. Developed countries have better expertise and technologies in handling wildlife trade—for example, wildlife forensics genetics techniques. However, three-quarters of the 179 WCO member states are developing countries that do not have similar capabilities. Developing countries have less incentive to accept new HS codes because they may further burden their limited customs resources.

In this setting, proposals to create HS codes for specific wildlife commodities may struggle to secure two-thirds majority votes as required by the HS Convention. Constraints of the HS prompted the idea of a new Taxonomic Serial Number (TSN) system complementary to the HS framework (6). This would require species information to be declared as TSN assigned by the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS). This is an ideal system that can accurately account for huge varieties of wildlife. However, the technical complexity (e.g., nomenclatural variability and disputability) and the resources required currently make it difficult to apply TSN extensively (11). HS, on the contrary, has a fixed list of defined taxonomic entities for consistency to avoid legal loopholes and has active customs enforcement worldwide due to its important role in tariff management. There is, therefore, a strategic necessity to remain reliant on and continue to strengthen the HS framework.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development contends that if the national customs tariff code can be standardized across countries, trade data will be of increased value for consumption-side monitoring (12). Standardization could be achieved by nonbinding WCO Council recommendations to member states. However, only a small subset of commodities could be standardized by recommendations. Broader HS reform would be needed to standardize commodities worldwide.

We suggest that the WCO should consider the HS a scalable system and take initiative to modify the HS Convention. The universal HS codes could be extended from 6 to 10 digits, with potential for accommodating thousands of commodities per subheading. Trade value threshold for listing of commodities should not be applied at the 10-digit level to allow a more inclusive listing. Developing countries, having low customs capacity, can maintain the current 6-digit (or less) classification as “partial application” permissible in the HS Convention (13). The universal 10-digit HS would apply only to developed countries or countries with capable customs administration to ensure data reliability. Given differences in purpose and implementing countries, the two levels of HS should have separate review committees and negotiation processes; relevant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) should be engaged as observers in the amendment process.

We do not intend to impose a strictly taxonomic scheme. The HS will ultimately need to be developed suitably for the industry and customs and to rely on competent agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and ITTO to steer it. Although the cost to overhaul the HS could be high, reduced resources needed for case-by-case trade investigations, combined with benefits gained in safeguarding wildlife, may offset administrative costs in the long run.

We believe expanding the code space can enhance the function of the HS. The Wildlife Trafficking Response, Assessment, and Priority Setting (Wildlife TRAPS) project—which engages private logistics companies, NGOs, and the WCO—recently identified the transport sector as the weakest link in combating wildlife trafficking (14). Because the HS forms the basis for goods declaration in national customs law, improving specificity of the HS will raise awareness among traders and the transport industry and make them more liable for accurate reporting of wildlife commodities.

Traders already work with various national tariff schedules that have 8 to 10 digits. Standardizing these codes across countries should reduce confusion at the operational level. The destinations of most wildlife commodities are usually developed countries with better customs facilities to serve as gatekeepers. If these countries adopt a 10-digit HS, the statistics would be representative of global trade.

Standardization of national tariff codes across countries could simplify international trade procedures in accordance with the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement that will soon enter into force. National-level customs could target shipments with a risk of trafficking more effectively. At the regional level, standardized code allows direct cross-verification of trade data between customs officials to detect potential fraud, mutually assisting enforcement of those that have different expertise. At the global level, consumption of wildlife commodities could be evaluated to address sustainability.

Although the HS has the potential to better monitor global wildlife trade and support enforcement of biodiversity conservation treaties, it is limited by the fundamental constraint of the code space and amendment process. The HS Convention should be reformed to extend the universal HS code to 10 digits. Developed countries should take the lead in improving customs data specificity.

References and Notes

  1. U. N. Comtrade Database, comtrade.un.org.
  2. CITES Decision, 16.62, Rev. CoP16 (2013); www.cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/dec/valid16/E16-Dec.pdf (2013).
  3. WCO Harmonized System Convention, www.wcoomd.org/en/topics/nomenclature/instrument-and-tools/hs_convention.aspx.
  4. WCO, Wildlife trafficking: Targeting solutions in the transport sector (2015); www.wcoomd.org/en/media/newsroom/2015/february/wildlife-trafficking-targeting-solutions-in-the-transport-sector.aspx.
  5. Acknowledgments: The authors thank anonymous reviewers and two experts from the World Trade Organization for comments and suggestions.
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