CITES – Bureaucracy or real action?

In September 2016 CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) held its 17th CoP (Conference of the Parties) in Johannesburg. These meetings occur once every 3 years, with the various other CITES sub-committees meeting in the years in between.

CITES came into force on 1 July 1975 and is one of the oldest and largest conservation agreements in existence. With a current membership of 183 parties, every CoP is an important event for global conservation efforts and the world’s flora and fauna [1].
Whilst the recent CoP resulted in a number of decisions (80 pages worth in fact!), the fundamental question is does CITES actually achieve anything? Does it make a real and tangible difference to the world’s most vulnerable species?

CITES imposes trade controls for live specimens, furs, leathers, animal products, timbers and dried plants, based on the categorisation below:

Appendix I (Threat of imminent extinction)

1,200 species listed
Commercial trade in wild caught specimens is illegal*
Example species include Leopard (Panthera pardus), Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), Rhinoceros** (Rhinocerotidae spp.), African elephant*** (Loxodonta africana)

Leopard (Panthera pardus) – listed in Appendix1
©Natalie Steiner

Appendix II (Control required to prevent significant population loss)

21,000 species listed
Controlled legal trade allowed – permits are required
Example species include Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) and Hippo (Hippopotamus amphibious)

Appendix III (Localised extinction)

170 species listed
Legal trade allowed – authorised certificate of origin and export permit required
Example species include African civet (Civettictis civetta) – in Botswana

* – In some exceptional circumstances trade is allowed i.e. movement between international zoos/wildlife conservation facilities.
** – All Rhinoceros species are listed with the exception of some southern African subspecies populations [2].
*** – With the exception of populations in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe which are listed in Appendix II.

The fist challenge for the convention comes with the ability of any party to be able to effectively ‘opt-out’ from any trade restrictions they don’t agree with, through the reservation process. As an example, Japan, Iceland and Norway have all lodged a reservation on various baleen whale species which means they are not bound by the trade restrictions imposed on those species [3]. This severely undermines the effectiveness of the convention.

Species or the ecosystem

CITES has been subject to criticism for focussing purely on trade at a species level with no address for issues such as habitat loss and for lacking a holistic ecosystem approach to conservation, not considering human influences such as poverty. Encouragingly, this focus is changing which was evident at the most recent meeting with the following decisions made:
– All Parties that are range states for the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), were instructed to take measures to prevent illegal trade and to consider the inclusion of the species into Appendix III [4]. The range states are also required to collaborate and exchange best practice conservation ideas to preserve populations to include habitat conservation, establishment of ecological corridors, infectious disease management and assessing and resolving human-wildlife conflicts.
– Madagascar received a specific direction to identify the main commercially valuable species of a number of trees found in the country (including ebonies and rosewoods). For those species identified, Madagascar will need to work with the CITES Secretariat to propose an export quota and detail why trade should be allowed [5].
– The CITES Plants Committee was instructed to form a working group to facilitate the sustainable use and management of all CITES listed African tree species [6]. The group will develop annual export quotas to compare with CITES recommended processes and work to reconcile any differences between them.

African lion (Panthera leo) ©Natalie Steiner

Retrospective, not Proactive

With the rise in wealth in China and other Asian countries, the demand for species for ‘medicinal purposes’, such as rhino horn and tiger bones, has risen dramatically. The demand for different species is constantly changing but the CITES process is often retrospective, only evaluating and restricting trade once populations numbers are already under threat.
In the case of the pangolin (Manis spp), there was historically little international trade. The illegal trade then exploded and since 2000 it is estimated that over 1 million animals have been illegally taken from the wild and traded [7]. At the 17th CoP, the CITES Secretariat was directed to prepare a report on the national and global conservation status of both African and Asian pangolin species. This report should include all available information on the levels of both legal and illegal trade, enforcement actions including seizures, arrests, prosecutions and the disposal of seized specimens. Inventories of current captive pangolin populations including breeding data and mortality rates in zoos, rehabilitation centres and other captive facilities will also be compiled [8]. Better reporting on species (by all parties) and the consolidation of the information received from non-governmental organisations will help facilitate more informed and improved outcomes for listed species.

No funding, no action

CITES is a voluntary and legally-binding agreement. Having said that, it is not always able to provide funding for required legislative changes or for helping implement the convention requirements. In this case, Parties are often forced to source external funding from regional organisations i.e. The European Union.

As an example from the most recent CoP meeting, the CITES Secretariat (in conjunction with the African lion range states and other conservation organisations) was tasked with developing the implementation of joint lion conservation plans and strategies [9]. This should include developing an inventory on African lion populations across all range states. It will undertake studies on the legal and illegal trade in bones to ascertain their origin, smuggling routes and key consumer states for lion parts and derivatives. In addition, more promotion of awareness to support lion-human co-existence is also required. This strategy is all subject to external funding…no funding means this won’t happen or will be delayed until funding is secured.

African elephant – Loxodonta Africana ©Natalie Steiner

Same species, different rules

The criteria for trade means that some species appear in different appendices for different populations. The African elephant is an example of this. The majority of populations are listed in Appendix I with the exception of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe which are listed in Appendix II. This results in different populations being subject to different trade restrictions and creates difficulty in determining where illegal trade is and isn’t happening if the country of export cannot be determined. A review of the proposal to transfer all African elephant populations into Appendix II by a CITES working group is now underway and the findings will be reported to the 18th meeting of the CoP in Sri Lanka in 2019[10]. Moving all African elephant populations to Appendix II may not be considered by many to be the right course of action to prevent the illegal trade in ivory but ensuring all populations are subject to the same trade restrictions will at least simplify the trade rules for all Parties. Ideally this will also ensure penalties and trade violations are more easily enforceable.

Differences between international trade and domestic trade can create similar inconsistencies. A recent court ruling in South Africa now means that rhino horn can be legally traded domestically, although the international trade is still illegal [11]. Many conservationists are concerned that domestic rhino horn will make it onto the black market and continue to fuel the illegal trade to Asia. CITES has no power to control domestic trade. At the last meeting, the CoP instructed all Parties to review their implementation of the strategies and proposed actions from the CITES Rhinoceros Enforcement Task Force to increase the effectiveness of law enforcement in response to poaching and rhino horn trafficking [12]. Only time will tell whether the change in trade rules in South Africa will help or hinder the fate of the rhino.

It’s helping but more could be done

Clearly, without CITES, the international trade in flora and fauna would be a free for all and many more species would have already become extinct. There’s no doubt that CITES works hard to limit trade and does succeed to a point, although there are limitations. The convention has agreed to focus on the following areas to increase its effectiveness:
– National laws: Some Parties do not have any laws in place prohibiting trade in violation of CITES. The CoP’s decision to place greater emphasis on treaty enforcement and harsher penalties in some countries where CITES trade laws are being violated will help to provide more incentive to prevent wildlife trafficking [13].
– Demand reduction: A number of decisions have been put in place from the most recent CoP to encourage demand reduction strategies, particularly by those Parties that are destinations for illegal wildlife trade [14].
– Funding: CITES, the World Bank and other financial institutions are working to understand the long term financial needs of developing countries to implement the convention with a view to securing future funding [15].

On an individual level, we can all help to do our bit to prevent the trade in illegal wildlife. Buy sustainable timbers that have official certification of their source. Don’t buy shells, animal products and other souvenirs on holiday when you can’t be sure what they’re made of or where they’ve been sourced from. Do your bit to educate friends and family on wildlife conservation and the importance of buying ethically sourced and sustainable goods. All these little things can add up to a lot!
Collectively as a species, we must all choose to live and behave differently – more sustainably – with a view to the future, for the sake of both our own species and the others that inhabit the planet with us.


1. CITES – www.cities.org
2. CITES Appendices – https://cites.org/eng/app/appendices.php – Retrieved 24 April 2017
3. CITES – https://cites.org/eng/app/reserve.php – Retrieved 24 April 2017
4. CITES – https://cites.org/eng/dec/index.php – Decisions of CoP17 – 17.235
5. CITES – https://cites.org/eng/dec/index.php – Decisions of CoP17 – 17.204
6. CITES – https://cites.org/eng/dec/index.php – Decisions of CoP17 – 17.302
7. http://www.pangolinsg.org
8. CITES – https://cites.org/eng/dec/index.php – Decisions of CoP17 – 17.239
9. CITES – https://cites.org/eng/dec/index.php – Decisions of CoP17 – 17.241
10. CITES – https://cites.org/eng/dec/index.php – Decisions of CoP17 – Rev. 16.160
11. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-39506052 – South Africa court permits domestic trade in rhino horns
12. CITES – https://cites.org/eng/dec/index.php – Decisions of CoP17 – 17.133
13. CITES – https://cites.org/eng/dec/index.php – Decisions of CoP17 – 17.58
14. CITES – https://cites.org/eng/dec/index.php – Decisions of CoP17 – 17.45
15. CITES – https://cites.org/eng/dec/index.php – Decisions of CoP17 – 17.13

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