Uncertainty, Precaution, and Adaptive Management in Wildlife Trade

51 Pages Posted: 11 Oct 2014 Last revised: 21 Oct 2015

See all articles by Annecoos Wiersema

Annecoos Wiersema

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Date Written: October 3, 2014


Wildlife trade is big business and threatens extinction for many species. It is also rife with uncertainty. For the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) every decision concerning a traded species has to navigate this uncertainty. This article addresses how the parties to CITES have dealt with uncertainty by analyzing their approach to precaution and adaptive management in the context of key operations of the treaty: listing criteria, guidance on non-detriment findings, and listing decisions for sharks, polar bears, and the African elephant.

This article concludes that the parties to CITES have implemented precaution through adaptive management and monitoring, rather than explicitly endorsing a precautionary principle or precautionary approach. The parties thereby emphasize uncertainty arising from data gaps. However, while monitoring and adaptive management are necessary for decision-making on wildlife trade, they are not sufficient because they do not fully acknowledge the multiple sources of uncertainty. This article urges a dual role for precaution in wildlife trade decision-making – a procedural role that incorporates it within monitoring and adaptive management and a substantive role that builds in an additional layer of protection even in the face of uncertainty. The article applies these roles to the specific context of CITES decision-making.

The complex mix of uncertainty and value debates is not unique to wildlife trade. Understanding how decision-makers can navigate this complexity and uncertainty without abandoning science-based decision-making is critical for conservationists and natural resource managers everywhere.

Keywords: CITES, international law, international environmental law, wildlife trade, precaution, precautionary principle, precautionary approach, conservation, biodiversity, adaptive management, polar bear, rhinoceros, elephant, shark

Suggested Citation

Wiersema, Annecoos, Uncertainty, Precaution, and Adaptive Management in Wildlife Trade (October 3, 2014). 36 Michigan Journal of International Law 375 (2015); U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-58. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2507883

Annecoos Wiersema (Contact Author)

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States

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