Can sport hunting ever be “non-detrimental”?

CITES says yes… but there are some issues with the current non-detrimental finding process. First, some background:

CITES and Sport Hunting

The international regulatory framework for sport hunting was established in 1975 through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES regulates international trade in plants and animals whose existence is threatened by that trade. Depending on how threatened the species is by trade, species are categorized into three Appendices:

  • Appendix I: Commercial trade is prohibited; species are threatened with extinction.
  • Appendix II: Commercial trade is regulated to prevent species from approaching extinction.
  • Appendix III: One country has requested help from CITES signatories to regulate trade originating in that country.

Sport hunting is not considered a commercial activity. Therefore, Appendix I trophies can be hunted when the proper permits are obtained. Import of Appendix I trophies into CITES member countries requires both an export permit from the country where the animal was hunted and an import permit from the trophy’s destination country. An import permit for a sport hunted trophy may be granted when the trophy will not be used for commercial purposes and the import will not be detrimental to the species’ survival. For example, Namibia and South Africa obtained permission from the CITES Conference of Parties (COP) to kill and export five black rhinoceros per year, under the condition that proceeds from the sale and hunt fund black rhino conservation programs.

This ‘non-detrimental finding’ (NDF) is required for trade in all Appendix I and Appendix II species. For Appendix I terrestrial species, scientific authorities in both the export and import states must make an NDF in order for the respective export and import permits to be issued. For Appendix II terrestrial species, only the export state’s scientific authority is required to issue an NDF. While the COP has released guidance on procedures for issuing NDFs, there are no binding requirements specifying the methodology or factors states must use to issue these findings.

NDFs and Sport Hunting

For trophy hunting of Appendix I species, the COP has historically accepted the establishment of export quotas through scientific analysis as an NDF. Parties who want to establish or amend a quota have been successful when the following information was included for the COP’s consideration: distribution, population status, population trends, threats, utilization and trade, actual or potential trade impact, population monitoring, and species management and control measures.

For hunting trophies of Appendix I species more generally, the COP recommends that the scientific authority of the importing country accept the NDF of the scientific authority of the exporting country, unless there are scientific or management data to indicate otherwise.

Based on a review of CITES guidance on NDFs, there are no formal rules for how often an NDF must be revisited. Therefore, CITES may allow for the continued hunting of certain trophies under the authority of an NDF that may be years old. NDFs are not published publicly by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) unless they result in bans or quotas of sport hunted animals. As a result, publication dates are not readily accessible by the public, including conservation and hunting groups. Additionally, range countries are not able to review existing NDFs from FWS. Lastly, the recent FWS non-detriment decisions for Zimbabwe and Tanzania reveal that there is insufficient data available on wildlife populations and the impact of sport hunting on wildlife in order to support NDFs in range countries.

Proposals to Enhance the Effectiveness of NDFs

In order to address these NDF issues, the U.S. could consider enhancing the NDF process through a focus on data standardization and transparency. Increasing the United States’ role in the monitoring and gathering of global wildlife data, as well as standardizing trade data, could facilitate better decision making for sport hunting management. For example, data from CITES regarding imports and exports of trophies is internally inconsistent. FWS could increase scrutiny on range countries by requiring more current data on wildlife populations. FWS could also use the NDFs to force export countries to standardize the process that leads to the problems with the CITES data. A heightened level of scrutiny gives range countries a larger incentive to reform their current data gathering activities. The potential increase in the amount of data on wildlife populations then allows the U.S. and export countries to make more informed decisions regarding the use of sport hunting. However, the cost and logistics of data gathering and maintenance for range countries may be prohibitive. Furthermore, range countries may not want more data widely available both because that data is available to poachers as well as legitimate actors and because the data may not support conservation success stories touted by range country governments.

Another option would be an NDF sunset clause. The sunset clause could also support increased data gathering without putting the emphasis on data alone. Without guidance from the CITES COP regarding how often non-detrimental findings should be updated, there are no standards for countries to fall back on to mitigate disputes about findings. In the recent Tanzania and Zimbabwe disputes, the U.S. could not issue NDFs and therefore undermined the NDF findings of the range countries (which came to the opposite conclusions).

In revisiting these findings, FWS has an opportunity to provide range countries with an incentive to reform their current data gathering and NDF activities. It is worth noting that additional funding would support range countries in strengthening the underlying data needed to support substantiated NDFs. Furthermore, because animal populations vary over time, it is important to reevaluate NDFs periodically to ensure continued hunting activities remain sustainable for the animal in question. FWS could also use NDF findings to force range countries to become more transparent or follow their own rules regarding wildlife management.

Despite these advantages, an NDF sunset clause could encourage issuance of permits to more foreign hunters, decreasing Americans’ access to sport hunting activities while not having the intended effect on conservation. Also, resources and expertise required to update NDFs would require monetary backing. Lastly, requiring updates to NDFs on a scheduled basis may result in unnecessary updates to documentation that do not contribute meaningfully to the conservation effort.

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