Shark fin and shark fin off cut during the drying process in Hong Kong. Tracability systems are essential in ensuring the legality and sustainability of products such as shark fin © WWF-Hong Kong / Tracy Tsang

traceability what it could do for the conservation of species in trade

Shark fin and shark fin off cut during the drying process in Hong Kong. Tracability systems are essential in ensuring the legality and sustainability of products such as shark fin © WWF-Hong Kong / Tracy Tsang


a mechanism to support sustainable trade

At the most basic level, traceability systems are used to ensure the quality, safety, and environmental responsibility of consumer products.

They provide buyers throughout supply chains with reliable, transparent, and accessible information on the origin of what they buy, whilst simultaneously providing governments, producers, processors, and retailers with assurances as to the product's compliance with national and international legislation. Traceability is complex and nuanced, varying by wildlife species, end product, location, volume, and myriad other factors. The issue of traceability, particularly within CITES-listed species, is of particular relevance to the fish, timber, and wild plant trade, given the rampant overexploitation of many of such species.

Glenn Sant, Fisheries Programme Leader

A traceable product is simply one that can be verifiably tracked through the supply chain to its origin—it should be a fundamental requirement for a host of fish products

Glenn Sant, Fisheries Programme Leader

the definition of traceability

As per the CITES Standing Committee Traceability Working Group:

"Traceability is the ability to access information on specimens and events* in a CITES species supply chain from harvest to subsequent transactions needed in order that authorities**, producers and traders can substantiate both legal acquisition and non-detrimental findings."

A dried seafood store in Hong Kong that sells range of products including fish maw, shark fin and a range of other marine species © WWF-Hong Kong / Tracy Tsang


*This information should be carried from as close to the point of harvest as practicable and needed through to the end of the supply chain on a case by case basis, noting the system needs to be designed for the specific products to be traced from particular sources to demonstrate legal acquisition, non-detrimental findings and prevent laundering of illegal products.

**Authorities refer to Scientific, Management and Enforcement CITES Authorities and other such as Customs, etc.

traceability in supporting trade in CITES-listed species

traceability within timber trade

Many African forests are facing unprecedented levels of illegal logging, exacerbated by complicated legislation and weak enforcement that results in unsustainable or unregulated trade. 

The results are rapidly decreasing rainforests in countries such as Cameroon and Madagascar, as well as a colossal loss of much-needed potential revenue for local communities and ations at large.

Alongside strengthening and building understanding of existing timber regulation and national legality frameworks, traceability mechanisms for the variety of timber products and species in trade would help combat illegal supply, and help global Customs agencies identify the origin and legality of the relevant timber product.

Working in both source and destinations countries is essential to ensure a set of traceability regulations that allow for the contextual requirements of different stakeholders throughout the supply chain.

Demand for tropical timbers such as Rosewood Dalbergia spp. from Asia makes the introduction of versatile reliable, and enforceable national and international traceability systems an urgent conservation priority to reverse the devastating ecological and human impact of illegal and unsustainable timber trade.

sharks and rays: a traceability case study

Traceability systems for sharks and rays need to accommodate a complex system of trade involving chain of custody and the many different forms of traded products.

In other similar cases, CITES has recommended additional measures beyond what is normally required for the issuance of permits and certificates. These additional measures are designed to facilitate the identification of the origin of the product, as well as encouraging strengthened trade monitoring. Examples of this include the recommendation of a universal tagging system for the identification of crocodilian skins, and the implementation of universal labelling requirements for sturgeon products.

In 2016 the CITES Secretariat commissioned TRAFFIC to review traceability systems developed for the trade in several CITES Appendix II-listed species so as to inform the development of such schemes for sharks and rays.

Through consideration of four case studies (caviar, timber, queen conch, and crocodile skins), we found a common theme in the need to strike a balance between establishing minimum standards/universal guidelines for traceability systems while also affording operators and Parties flexibility to implement systems that are well-adapted to their specific contexts. The lack of universal standards has allowed for the proliferation of different systems, which are not necessarily inter-operable, and make reliable and transparent traceability conclusions a regular challenge.

A lack of uptake and innovation from many governments the world over is stalling the transition towards robust traceability systems that could help combat the illegal or unsustainable trade in shark and rays. With over 1,000,000 caught each year, time is running out for these ancient guardians of the ocean.

traceability for wild plants

Wild plants are some of the most under-researched wildlife products in trade, and by one of the most "hidden" yet prolific wildlife ingredients in use today.

Recent research conducted by the IUCN Red List™ reveals that only 7% of the 300–400,000 plant species have been assessed against extinction threat criteria, with 1 in 5 of these threatened with extinction in the wild. With an estimated 60–90% of medicinal and aromatic plants in trade believed to be wild collected, there is an urgent need to conduct further research into both the species of wild plant ingredients in trade, and  the strength of the current sustainability or traceability systems in place.

Current barriers to uptake and compliance include a lack of understanding of the CITES process, alongside extremely complicated supply chains. Even in cases where a plant product is certified "organic" against legislation such as the EU Council Regulation on Organic Production (834/2007), there are no detailed harvesting standards required to substantiate the sustainability of "organic" harvesting activities.

Ensuring that wild plant ingredients have been sourced in compliance with existing national and international legislation is a good first step, with stakeholders throughout supply chains encouraged to conduct an internal audit of the species they trade in, and take steps to ensure their products are sustainably collected and traceable.

Increased commitments from producers, processors, suppliers, and consumer associations is needed to ensure collection activities are ethical, and that trade doesn't adversely affect the survival of target species, or their wider ecosystem.

moving forward

There is much that traceability systems can contribute towards the protection of both wild species and the people who depend on them. 

Below are a list of minimum measures that traceability systems should take to work towards sustainable, transparent, and traceable wildlife trade:

  • access to reliable information to demonstrate compliance with national/international requirements
  • provide robust traceability records of the product's origin and movement throughout the supply chain
  • ensure key data, such as species, origin, and processing records, is included across supply chains
  • use digital recording, tracking, and tracing of data
  • use independent verification and auditing