Meet the Expert...


This issue we focus on Dr Vin Fleming, JNCC's Head of Global Programme covering his CITES work only. Vin has worked atVin Fleming, Head of JNCC's Global Programme © Vin Fleming JNCC for 15 years. Before that he worked on species and biodiversity issues in the Advisory Services at Scottish Natural Heritage and, from 1985, for the Nature Conservancy Council in Dumfries & Galloway. Originally, he studied ecology at Lancaster and did a Ph.D. and post-doctoral work in Edinburgh on mycorrhizal fungi of forest trees.


How did you first become involved in work with CITES?

Having lived and worked in Scotland for nearly 20 years, I felt like a change so after voting in favour of devolution in the 1997 referendum I decided to observe the outcome from a safe distance. The vacancy to head the CITES Scientific Authority arose at JNCC and I was fortunate enough to be offered the job.


What are your main concerns for the international trade in endangered species?

I think one concern I have is that wildlife trade is nearly always perceived negatively even though we nearly all engage in such trade ourselves whether we think of it as such or not (have you ever bought cod or orchids?) And, of course, there are many instances (too many perhaps) where wildlife trade is, and can be, detrimental, such as the current peak in the illegal killing of elephants and rhinos for their ivory and horn. But set against that, there are also many cases where sustainable trade, properly regulated through CITES, provides incentives for the conservation of species and/or their habitats and which benefit the livelihoods of people, especially in the developing world. The key issue is, I think, to analyse those factors influencing whether wildlife trade leads to positive conservation outcomes, or not, and then seek to apply any lessons learned to other situations.


Explaining the potential benefits of enabling sustainable wildlife trade (and then achieving that) is a much more difficult task than simply pointing out where things have gone wrong or seeking to end trade altogether. For example, we routinely expect people much poorer than ourselves to bear the costs of living with large and often dangerous wildlife (which we would not tolerate ourselves in the UK) even though they may not receive any benefits in return. By contrast, we may accrue the benefits (with no cost) because we can see wildlife on television, go on safari holidays or simply value their existence. Benefits derived from some form of sustainable use (consumptive or not) might increase the tolerance of local communities to such wildlife.


Looking to the future, are there any emerging issues around the trade in endangered species?

I think I would identify three areas as follows:

  1. Marine fish – although many species are listed in CITES, the bulk of wildlife trade globally, in value and volume, is in (non-listed) fish and timber. Listing of such species in CITES has always been resisted until they are at, or close to, commercial extinction. Recent listings of five commercially exploited sharks provides an opportunity for CITES to demonstrate that it can make a difference by complementing (not replacing) traditional fisheries management, even though implementation is likely to be challenging, especially for fisheries on the high seas.
  2. Economics – most decisions in CITES about wildlife trade are influenced by people with biological backgrounds, yet every aspects of the trade is strongly driven by markets and how people behave in them. I think better understanding the factors driving wildlife trade, and so being able to identify interventions that will support sustainability, would benefit from greater input from economists and social scientists.
  3. Research needs - exporting countries often struggle to make non-detriment findings (the test of sustainability required before exports should be permitted) because of the lack of basic information on parameters like population size and impacts of harvests. This is not an emerging issue per se but there is considerable scope for greater involvement of academia and others to undertake studies to help fill these gaps in support of exporting countries.


In your CITES work have you come across any strange items that have tried to be imported?

Like elephant feet umbrella stands? Or a rhino drinks cabinet? Or Damien Hirst’s pickled great white shark? Or an Action Man with attached barn owl wings? Er no.


What has been your most significant achievement working at JNCC?

See the answer to question 1. It is very difficult to identify any achievements that you might claim for yourself that do not also involve the collective efforts of other colleagues in JNCC or in Defra or NGOs. However, JNCC has always been well respected as a CITES Scientific Authority – so if, with my colleagues here, I have been able to contribute to maintaining our reputation for professionalism, balance and objectivity, then I would happily take that as a significant achievement.


If you had to choose a favourite CITES species, what would it be and why?

I could probably never tire of watching, for pleasure, some CITES species – especially raptors like hobbies or harriers. But if choosing a CITES species for its impact, then I would probably go for European eel which was listed in 2009. This is a species whose recruitment (that is numbers of glass eels/elvers returning from the Sargasso Sea) has declined by >95%, occurs as one population only, and is considered critically endangered in the IUCN Red List. In other words, it is considered to be far more threatened than the elephants, white rhinos or tigers that usually capture the headlines but, unlike them, is a UK native. And, unusually for the EU, this was a species for which we were exporting live wild-taken glass eels to use in aquaculture in China; normally, the EU is a major importer of wildlife products – so we had to address many of the issues that exporting countries routinely cover when determining if exports are sustainable.


The CITES listing, combined with an EU Regulation aimed at enabling the recovery of European eel, has stimulated a lot of action through the Environment Agency, CEFAS and others, to improve eel habitats, remove barriers to migration, reduce fishing levels where necessary and better understand eel biology and migration. Importantly, this has involved good cross-sectoral working bringing fishery and wildlife trade specialists together across the EU and with strong stakeholder engagement through, for example, the Sustainable Eel Group. And eels are good to eat too (if from a sustainable source).



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