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Artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies can transform how we trace trade in wild animals and plants

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By John Scanlon, Marcos Regis da Silva

· 10 min read


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is one of the most successful multilateral environmental agreements among the family of biodiversity-related conventions. This relative success rests on mechanisms that are peculiar to the Convention, and the practices and processes established by Parties under the Convention, many of which are normally found in trade and commerce agreements. These include its ability to recommend suspensions on trade, a stable and mature system of trade permits and certificates, findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable trade data (even if imperfect), and periodic reviews of significant trade.

CITES has not been immune to the technological and information trends occurring in the trade world. It has published data standards to assist in transitioning paper permits and certificates to electronic formats that are fully compliant with recommendations issued by the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) and the World Customs Organization, the two leading organizations establishing standards on electronic trade. This is an essential foundation for moving to electronic permits. 

Furthermore, CITES Parties have discussed the need to describe the consecutive steps taken during the movement of specimens in trade, which is usually referred to as the value chain. This allows for the identification of points throughout the value chain where information must be exchanged, resulting in greater opportunities for improved traceability.

Governments of Parties to CITES are also encouraging the use of DNA, including DNA analysis of forensic evidence in the prosecution of wildlife trafficking, and stable isotopes and other technologies to ensure legal, sustainable and traceable trade in wildlife. Additionally, projects such as the Consortium for the Barcode of Life are attempting to create reliable and inexpensive means to more easily identify species.

However, the full potential of technologies currently in use has not been reached. Complete automation of the CITES trade regime remains a goal. Many DNA and isotope technologies are difficult to use and remain unavailable to many countries in the Global South, especially those whose communities are most affected by criminal activity.

Another challenge remains the convergence, integration and interoperability of different technologies to create a single framework where analysis, identification and complete traceability become possible through a single entry point. The use of new technologies is fragmented, inequitable and not fully integrated with the CITES trade processes.

During our time at CITES, we worked closely with Parties to begin the transition of paper CITES permits and certificates to electronic formats. This initiative resulted in the publication in 2010 of the CITES E-permitting Toolkit, which allowed CITES permits and certificates to be harmonized with other required trade documentation and use the Single Windows environment, an electronic trade system harmonizing all trade-related documentation. 

To encourage Parties to move toward a fully electronic trade environment, the Secretariat partnered with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to integrate CITES permits and certificates in its Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA), an electronic Customs management system for foreign trade procedures. To date, 102 countries and territories worldwide are using ASYCUDA.

The Secretariat also reached out to Parties developing similar Customs management systems, i.e. Single Window Environments, to harmonize CITES permits and certificates with these systems. Among such systems, those of the Republic of Korea and Singapore were adopted by many CITES Parties.

Work with Parties also began in 2012 on traceability systems and the description of the CITES value chain. The ability to trace specimens in trade would provide CITES with better tools to combat the illegal trafficking of wildlife, generate additional data for use in analyses of trade, and enhance the legality of the trade.

Efforts were also made to harmonize CITES trade procedures with other United Nations organizations. Preliminary work was achieved in 2015 to harmonize CITES permits and certificates with those of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), an important effort towards the enhancement of synergies given that IPPC phytosanitary certificates may be used for trade in CITES specimens. Seed projects were also initiated with non-governmental organizations, including GS1, the developer of the barcode which, when launched, revolutionized commerce. 

Two working groups, the first on electronic permits and certificates, established in 2005, and the second on traceability for specimens in trade, established in 2015, were directed to facilitate this work and promote Party participation and buy-in. We note in particular the exceptional support received from Switzerland and the United Kingdom for activities promoted by the working groups.

This was all part of creating the essential preconditions to moving towards electronic permitting. However, despite best efforts, the time was not right to secure the step change in resourcing needed to make profound changes to how the Convention’s trade processes are conducted. Given the rapidly changing global, regional and national policy and legal landscape, the time may have now arrived when the benefits of making such changes are seen as being of a magnitude to warrant the scale of investment that is needed. 

Moving forward

A possible new framework for CITES would be based on several different elements. First, there exists the need to create a fully decentralized but reliable permit and certificate exchange system for electronic documentation. Such a system must be traceable, secure and easily implementable. It must also be able to integrate the different elements underpinning CITES trade processes, including the issuance and receipt of documentation, more seamless integration with the CITES Appendices and Checklist, registration on issuance and receipt of permits and certificates in the CITES trade database, ability to trace the movement of goods throughout the value chain, and development of affordable identification tools.


If the CITES e-permitting system is viewed as a network among its Parties, blockchain would provide the means for the CITES e-permitting processes to become a distributed database or ledger that could be shared among many different nodes or, in the context of CITES, its Management and Scientific Authorities. Blockchain is recognized for its ability to enhance a distributed system's security and provide a decentralized record of transactions. This is achieved by what one would refer to in ‘blockchain-speak’ as immutability, i.e., its ability to make data non-alterable.

Blockchain would also eliminate the need for third-party centralized servers, gateway or storage facilities providing immediate, traceable and secure CITES Authority to CITES Authority, i.e. peer to peer, peer-to-peer information exchange. Given that a copy of the permit or certificate must accompany the specimen in trade, blockchain could also provide the foundation to begin the implementation of an urgently needed system to trace specimens throughout the CITES value chain. The idea is not new, in fact in 2017 the CITES Secretariat published the ‘CITES Block Chain Challenge’. Perhaps it was ahead of its time. 

Artificial Intelligence

The value of artificial intelligence to CITES trade lies in its possible convergence with blockchain to establish the new framework necessary for truly legal, sustainable and traceable international trade in wildlife. That is, while blockchain and artificial intelligence as standalone technologies could bring significant benefits to CITES, it is their integrated use that would bring about radical improvements to the Convention.

The possible impact of artificial intelligence on CITES, even when used independently from blockchain is highlighted in applications currently in use by Customs in entry, departure and in-transit ports, especially those in airports.

For example, the use of artificial intelligence in image analysis improves significantly the detection of illegal specimens. Moreover, machine analyses powered by artificial intelligence streamline the transit process while reducing error detection.

Non-intrusive inspections empowered by artificial intelligence provide more efficient means to identify specimens and also anomalies in baggage and cargo. It can validate manifests, and reduce the rate of smuggling attempts.

Nevertheless, in the CITES context, artificial intelligence over blockchain could provide easier analyses of data, monitoring and tracing of species in trade, and greatly improved identification tools. It could also radically reduce the error rate when entering data in permits and certificates. Currently, CITES data loses value due to the delays in compiling and analysing permit and certificate data submitted to the Secretariat in annual reports

Assuming better progress in transitioning national permitting systems to electronic formats, blockchain offers the means to register the data in real-time without delays on the CITES Trade Database, while artificial intelligence could offer easier and less restrictive means to analyse the data. It would be possible, for instance, to have an up-to-the-minute analysis of data and overview for any specimens in trade while eliminating the time-consuming and error-prone effort to compile paper permits and certificates and submit them as annual reports. It may also eliminate the need to contract third parties to analyse the data. The error rate would be significantly reduced as checksum systems could be employed and full integration of the electronic CITES Checklist and Appendices made. Finally, artificial intelligence-based analyses could be made cost-effective, offer equitable access, and increase the impact and authority of CITES.

Given that data in a blockchain environment is immutable, and given the possibility to trace the data anywhere in the value chain, it becomes easier to implement traceability systems. The true value of these systems, however, would be in the ability to monitor the movement of the specimen in real-time and ascertain its transit through the value chain. In this manner, it would provide greater assurance for legal traders and be more challenging for wildlife traffickers to launder illegally harvested wildlife in the value chain. It would also provide the means to optimize the movement of specimens during every step of the trade process, an especially important concern for the shipment of live specimens.

Lastly, the combination of artificial intelligence and blockchain would make possible the development of more cost-effective and effective identification tools for Customs or national authorities. DNA forensics, or simpler technologies based on visualization, would be strides ahead of the more burdensome process of using the many identification manuals that are currently in use. Even more, it would make identification through DNA technologies more equitable to governments in the Global South.


New technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain have transformative potential to improve upon the implementation of CITES and to ensure the legality and traceability of specimens in trade. However, it is not in the stand-alone use of these technologies where the greatest benefit would occur. Rather, it is in their convergence in the development of a new interoperable framework to conduct legal, sustainable and traceable trade that the most benefits may occur.

For this to happen, governments need to transition their paper-permitting systems to electronic format much more quickly. They need to financially support the development of the blockchain CITES system and the artificial intelligence tools and processes. Lastly, they need to adhere to the innovations occurring in commerce. 

CITES was the first of the biodiversity-related conventions to enter into force in July 1975. Despite its shortcomings, it is also one of the most effective. The Parties have traditionally been willing to enhance its processes, from compliance to the review of significant trade. 

The technologies available in the 21st century are critical if CITES is to fully deliver against its mandate and contribute towards meeting the targets set in the Kunming-Montréal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF).

CITES now lists over 40,000 species of wild animals and plants. Over the last 15 years, increasing numbers of high-value marine and timber species have been brought under CITES trade controls. And it’s not just about CITES. New laws and policies at national and regional levels are demanding greater disclosure and due diligence, including regarding the origin of wildlife and wildlife products, which has implications for industry, and States are striving to achieve the universally agreed targets set in the GBF. 

Moving to fully embrace technology will test CITES culture to innovate, and require new skillsets, as well as additional resourcing. But it’s not starting from scratch, with much of the groundwork having already been laid over the past decade. 

Given the broader context within which CITES operates, perhaps now is the time we will finally see major strides taken to bring CITES trade processes into the 21st Century. 

This article is published to coincide with UN World Wildlife Day, 3 March 2024. It has been celebrated annually since 2014 and this years theme is Connecting People and Planet: Exploring Digital Innovation in Wildlife Conservation.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

John Scanlon AO is a seasoned leader in the fields of environment, governance and sustainable development, with a unique range of experience gained across multiple continents, disciplines and organisations. He has served in senior positions in the private sector, with government, international organisations, the United Nations, and not-for-profit organizations, and as chair or member of many boards and initiatives. This includes working with IUCN (Bonn), UNEP (Nairobi) and CITES (Geneva)

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Marcos Regis Silva is a former Chief, Knowledge Management and Outreach Services, with the CITES Secretariat

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