The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an agreement between member states that seeks to regulate the international trading of wild animals and plants. 

March 3 is World Wildlife Day. It is a day dedicated to the celebration of the many varied and beautiful forms of wild fauna and flora that exist, as well as an opportunity to raise awareness of the many benefits their conservation offers people. The 2022 event will see a virtual celebration with the theme, recovering key species for ecosystem restoration”. The theme aims to shine a spotlight on the conservation status of some of the most critically endangered wild animals and plants. But what are governments actually doing to protect these endangered species and the multitude of other species threatened by human activities?

What is the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species?

The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an agreement between member states (called Parties) that seeks to regulate the international trading of wild animals and plants. It accords protection to more than 37,000 species of plants and animals, whether they are traded alive or as commodities such as fur coats or dried herbs. The aim of CITES is to ensure that the trading of wild fauna and flora is legal, sustainable, and traceable. 

The effort to regulate the cross-border trading of wild plants and animals requires international cooperation. CITES was born out of this spirit of cooperation. There are currently 184 contracting parties, with the most recent addition being Andorra in October 2021. Adherence to the agreement is voluntary, but once a state has agreed to be bound by the Convention, they are legally bound to adopt domestic legislation, which ensures that the CITES framework is implemented at the national level. 

A Brief History

Prior to the 1960s, discussions around regulating the international trade of wild fauna and flora for conservation purposes were few and far between. The trade industry was (and still is) highly profitable and often acted with impunity. 

Following the Second World War, the world began to become more interconnected. This served to increase the trade in both wild fauna and flora. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was founded in 1948, and would grow to become the global authority on the conservation of wildlife. During its first decade, the IUCN focused on understanding the impact of human actions on nature. Throughout the 60s and 70s, the focus honed in on protecting species and the habits necessary for their survival. 

It was in the early 1960s the threat that unregulated trade posed to wild animals and plants began to enter into international discourse. CITES was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted at a meeting of member states at the IUCN in 1963. A decade later,  80 countries met in Washington DC in the US to agree on the exact text of the convention and to open it to signatories. CITES came into effect on 1 July 1975.

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How CITES Works

CITES seeks to control the international trade of wild specimens through the use of a licensing system. The import, export, re-export, or introduction from the sea of a species covered by CITES has to be authorised through the licensing system. Each Party-state to CITES must appoint a management authority/authorities who are responsible for the licensing systems, as well as one or more scientific authorities to provide advice on the effects of trade on the status of each species. 

The species covered by CITES are listed in three Appendices based on their vulnerability. 

Appendix I

Species placed in Appendix I are the most endangered species. These species face the greatest threat of extinction and the commercial trading of them is prohibited. Non-commercial trading is permitted under exceptional circumstances, such as for scientific research, but only if authorised import and export permits are granted. Examples of animals placed in Appendix I are the Asiatic lion and tigers. 

Appendix II

Species listed in Appendix II are not facing an imminent threat of extinction but may soon be if trading is not closely monitored. While the trade of these species does not require import permits, they do require export permits if they are to be traded internationally. Permits will only be granted if the relevant authorities deem that the trade will not endanger the survival of the species in the wild. American alligators and southern elephant seals are listed in Appendix II. 

Appendix III

Appendix III lists species that Parties have requested the cooperation of other Parties in controlling the trade of. A Party that already regulates the trade of a species may request the inclusion of that species into Appendix III in an effort to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploration of the species. International trading of these species is only permitted upon the presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates. The honey badger in Botswana and the Florida softshell turtle in the USA are listed in Appendix III.

The Conference of the Parties (CoP)

Every two-to-three years, all CITES Parties come together at an event called the Conference of the Parties (CoP). At CoP (not to be confused with the climate change conference COP26 that occurred in October 2021), the parties evaluate how the convention is being enforced, consider proposals for new listings or removing species from the appendices, debate resolutions about the implementation of the regulations, and review conservation progress.

The main event of the two-week conference is the appendices changes. A species can be moved from one appendix to another, depending on whether it requires more or less protection. Species may only be added, removed, or moved between Appendix I and Appendix II during the CoP. Any party may unilaterally decide to remove/add a species to Appendix III at any time, although the Convention recommends that these changes be made during the CoP to coordinate with amendments made to Appendix I and II.

The next CoP is scheduled to take place in November 2022, in Panama. 

Criticisms of CITES

While the intention of CITES is conservation, the convention is not without its critics. 

CITES is the primary international framework for preventing the loss of wild species due to international trade. The convention aims to be as scientifically-based as possible, but this can create delayed responses to species exploitation, as species can only be added to Appendix I and II during a CoP, which only occurs every two to three years. A study published in the Science journal found that in nearly two-thirds of the cases that they analysed, the CITES process of regulating the trade of a threatened species lagged considerably behind the IUCN identifying that the species needed to be protected from trade. The IUCN is responsible for identifying the degree of threat wild species face, and places species on the IUCN Red List according to their vulnerability. 

Another criticism of CITES is that while the categorisation of the appendices are based in science, the actual enforcement of the regulations are left up to individual countries, many of whom lack either the resources or the political will to enforce them. 

Should a party contravene the convention, CITES can sanction that country, thus preventing them from trading CITES-listed species. However, sanctions are rarely issued and the process can become politically charged. Furthermore, as CITES membership is voluntary, the sanctioned party can simply leave CITES rather than accept the sanctions. ​​

Convention on International Trade of Endangered SpeciesBig Wins 

Despite its critics, the regulations that CITES provides offer an important first step in controlling the international trade of wild plants and animals, and are essential to global conservation efforts.

An example of a CITES conservation success story is that of the vicuña (the smallest member of the camelid family). These mammals live in the high regions of the Andes and their wool is five times more expensive than cashmere. In the 1960s, vicuñas numbers had dropped to around 6,000 individuals and by 1967, some of the Range States ( the nations that exercised jurisdiction over any part of the vicuñas range) had declared it extinct. In 1975, vicuñas became protected under CITES. Following the protection, some populations recovered so significantly that trade in the wool sheared from live animals is now permitted.

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