What is CITES?

The international trade in wild animals and plants is worth billions of dollars every year. Levels of exploitation and rates of wild capture can have a serious detrimental impact on the future survival of thousands of animal and plant species across the globe.

The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments, which provides varying levels of protection for species that are or may be in danger of extinction from international trade.

179 countries (or ‘Parties’) are members of CITES. It is viewed by many as the world's most important Multilateral Environmental Agreement, and is legally binding upon the Parties. Contraventions of the Convention can lead to trade suspensions and can have a serious economic impact on the countries involved.

The United Nations Environment Programme administers CITES through a Secretariat. Among its many functions the Secretariat has a coordinating, advisory and servicing role in the working of the Convention.

How does CITES regulate international trade ?

CITES has more than 30,000 species of plants and animals listed on three Appendices:

Appendix I includes species that are threatened with extinction and that are or may be affected by international trade. Commercial international trade in species listed on Appendix I is prohibited.

Appendix II includes species that, although not necessarily threatened with extinction, may become so unless trade is strictly regulated. Species may also be listed on Appendix II if their parts or products cannot be readily distinguished from those of other species listed on CITES Appendix I or II. Commercial international trade in Appendix II species is permitted, but is subject to strict controls. Parties may only grant a permit to export such species, or their products, after it has determined that the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species.

Appendix III includes species that any Party has identified as requiring regulation within its jurisdiction, and that needs the cooperation of other Parties to monitor international trade in the species. Parties may unilaterally add species to Appendix III at any time and such listings are not legally binding.

What happens at CITES meetings?

The Conference of the Parties (CoP) is an event which takes place every three years. At each CoP, Parties submit Proposals to add or move species between Appendix I and II based on a set of biological and trade criteria. They may also propose that species be removed from the Appendices. These Proposals are discussed and then, if no consensus is reached, submitted to a vote. CoPs also provide an opportunity for Parties to consider and vote on Decisions, Resolutions and other documents which relate to compliance, implementation and enforcement of the Convention.

For example, at the 15th CoP (CoP15) in March 2010, Tanzania and Zambia tried to reduce the level of protection their elephants are afforded (by moving them from Appendix I to Appendix II) and additionally sought to gain approval for a one-off sale of over 110,000kg of their stockpiled ivory to China and Japan. Although these Proposals went against the spirit a nine year moratorium on ivory trade which had been agreed by Parties in 2007, the final wording of that moratorium unfortunately had a loophole which Tanzania and Zambia tried to exploit. However, due to the hard work of many, including the African Elephant Coalition (composed of the majority of African elephant range States), CITES rejected both Tanzania's and Zambia's Proposals.

CoP16 took place in Bangkok between 3 and 15 March 2013. Tanzania had again been planning to seek approval to sell ivory - this time over 101,000kg of it - but following widespread opposition to this move, withdrew its Proposal in December 2012. The CoP16 agenda still had many issues potentially affecting elephants both negatively and positively - see here for a summary of the outcomes of CoP16. 

CITES Parties also meet annually at Standing Committee (SC) meetings in Geneva (Switzerland). The members of the SC are Parties representing each of the six major geographical regions (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Central & South America and the Caribbean, and Oceania). The SC provides guidance to the CITES Secretariat on the implementation of CITES and oversees the management of the Secretariat's budget. Where required it also coordinates and oversees the work of other committees and working groups, carries out tasks given to it by the CoP and drafts Resolutions for consideration by the CoP.  The membership of the SC is reviewed at each CoP meeting. See here for an overview of the outcomes of the last SC.

Read more about the ivory trade

Further information on CITES can be found on the Species Survival Network and the official CITES websites.

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