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World Wildlife Day: using digital innovation to prevent illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade

By Alison Littlewood

To celebrate World Wildlife Day on 3 March, our latest blog post provides some insight into our role as the UK’s CITES Scientific Authority for fauna.

World Wildlife Day, held on 3 March every year, holds significance as the day that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was signed, in 1973. This international agreement between governments was created to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species. The United Nations General Assembly Resolution designated the CITES Secretariat as the facilitator for the global observance of this special day for wildlife on the United Nations (UN) calendar and the UN World Wildlife Day has now become the global annual event dedicated to wildlife.


JNCC was appointed as the UK’s CITES Scientific Authority for fauna in 1991 – over 30 years ago (with Royal Botanic Garden Kew providing the reciprocal role for flora). Our team of 11 scientific advisors work to provide prompt and reliable advice to Defra and other government departments to enable the UK to meet their international obligations in relation to CITES and more generally for biodiversity and sustainable development.

We provide scientific advice to the UK Management Authorities (Defra and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA)) on the issuance of CITES permits, in order to ensure that trade to and from the UK will not have a harmful effect on the relevant population of the species. This is known as making a 'non-detriment finding' (NDF), and we currently advise on around 20,000 different applications every year, covering everything from snakeskin handbags to falcons and live eels.

However, providing licensing and policy advice to Defra and APHA is only part of our role. We also work collaboratively with UK enforcement authorities through the Wildlife Crime Conservation Advisory Group (WCCAG), which JNCC co-ordinates, to identify wildlife crime priorities and intelligence requirements for wildlife law enforcement in the UK.

We deliver regular training on illegal wildlife trade and CITES to both police and Border Force officers in collaboration with the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) and are currently developing material for an online Advanced CITES accredited training course for police in England and Wales. We also provide impact and expert witness statements in order to inform prosecutors and the judiciary of the seriousness of crimes, affecting sentencing for criminals.

Exploring digital innovation and technologies in supporting wildlife conservation

Each year, World Wildlife Day explores a different theme. This year the theme is 'exploring digital innovation'. This highlights how digital conservation technologies and services can drive wildlife conservation, sustainable and legal wildlife trade and human-wildlife coexistence, now and for future generations in an increasingly connected world.

JNCC is a member of the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW) Forensic Working Group (FWG). Its membership is made up of representatives from the forensic science community, government departments, the Police, UK Border Force and non-governmental organisations. The FWG aims to support the application of scientific technologies to countering wildlife crime in the UK. It keeps abreast of developments in wildlife forensics and works to provide tools for wildlife law enforcers.

We also work with CITES Authorities around the world, including those in the UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, to strengthen implementation of the Convention and to promote sustainable utilization of wildlife, while preserving the environment and enhancing the social and economic livelihood of local people.

Non-detriment findings (NDFs), science-based assessments to verify whether trade in specimens of CITES-listed species will be detrimental or not, are fundamental to the Convention. In this regard, concerns about unsustainable trade in some corals, and of wild corals being falsely reported as from mariculture, resulted in the UK collaborating with Indonesia to produce an identification guide to help custom inspectors better identify stony corals in trade. This ‘go to’ guide also allows inspectors to differentiate stony corals originating from a wild-collected or mariculture source. Developed by Cefas, and including contributions from the CITES SA at JNCC, it was formally launched by Defra at CITES CoP19 in Panama in November 2022. A blog article Safeguarding Global Coral Trade: The Power of a New Visual Guide for Border Inspections by Jo Murray of Cefas goes into detail about the guide and its applications in helping better implement CITES.

Most recently we worked with the Turks and Caicos Island (TCI) Government Departments as part of an EU RESEMBID (Resilience, Sustainable Energy and Marine Biodiversity) funded project addressing the sustainability of queen conch fisheries and livelihoods in TCI. Queen conch remains one of the most important fishery resources in the Wider Caribbean Region, but growing demand has led to problems of over-fishing, illegal landings and declines.

Deep-water adult populations of queen conch are challenging to study using dive surveys due to safety considerations and practical limitations. One of the activities under the project is trying to find an innovative solution to this by testing two novel underwater visual survey methodologies. The established towed video array method (TVM) and more novel underwater drone (Remote Operated Vehicle or ‘ROV’) are being compared.

These new survey methodologies could provide a more time- and cost-effective way to survey queen conch (and other marine flora and fauna) at deeper depths than divers can safely reach.

For full details of the project and the comparison survey report, visit the project webpage.


Image sources: Photograph 1 – JNCC staff delivering a CITES training course to the Saudi Police (image courtesy of Claire Dinsdale); Photograph 2 – JNCC staff with colleagues in the Turks and Caicos Islands exploring survey methodologies (image courtesy of Rebecca Austin); World Wildlife Day logo and poster courtesy of World Wildlife Day.

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