However, a new study by scientists from Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund shows that in some cases, the figures for trade recorded by CITES vary wildly from records kept by the U.S. Customs Service. Their findings indicate the U.S. system for tracking endangered wildlife is failing to properly register the actual numbers of plants and animals involved.
According to the study, published in the journal Conservation Biology, the CITES and U.S. Customs figures for imports and exports of certain species should be the same, but vary by as much as 5,200 percent. In all cases studied, CITES and Customs reported substantially different trade volumes for all species.
"To solve any problem, it's important to understand the problem first. Our findings suggest that we don't know as much as we must about the international wildlife trade to conserve endangered species," said Art Blundell, the study's lead author and Center for Applied Biodiversity Science fellow at Conservation International.
The study represents a groundbreaking new dimension to the debate over the regulation and trade of endangered species. Such widely divergent data suggest widespread inaccuracies in recordkeeping, and without accurate information, sound policy and financial allocation decisions become problematic, making conservation less effective.
"Scientists have long recognized that targeted exploitation of wildlife for international trade is an important cause of biodiversity loss. The question has always been 'how important?' Our findings suggest that the international wildlife trade may be a bigger threat than we've generally thought," said Mike Mascia, senior social scientist with the WWF's Conservation Science Program and the study's co-author.
Although Customs and CITES do not collect data for the purpose of direct comparison, Blundell and Mascia identified five sets of species -- conch, caviar, live coral, cultivated ginseng, and mahogany -- in which the two monitoring systems measured trade in similar categories, making valid comparisons possible. The five groups analyzed represent more than 2,000 species, or 6 percent of the approximately 33,600 species currently under CITES regulation.
The study identified several factors contributing to the widespread discrepancies between Customs and CITES data. Smuggling is one known cause. Also problematic are pervasive and often random recording errors, such as typographic mistakes, data entries that lack measurement units [e.g., kilograms, tons, etc.], and miscategorization of shipments. The authors find the diverging figures troubling because of the United States' standing as the world's largest consumer of endangered species.
The research also showed that the differing figures kept by CITES and U.S. Customs followed no pattern. In some cases, CITES recorded more trade of a certain wildlife group than U.S. Customs, while for others, the situation was reversed.
Fortunately, solutions are possible. To increase precision and reduce smuggling, the authors suggest that agencies should use the same categories for recording wildlife trade and should share information more rapidly; they should be better trained; and wherever possible, the systems should be automated. .
"As the U.S. government agency responsible for CITES, the Fish and Wildlife Service should be given the resources it needs to track the wildlife trade properly," Blundell said. "Accurate wildlife trade monitoring will require creative thinking by all parties - especially government agencies, conservation organizations, and wildlife traders in the U.S. and abroad."