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Created as the brainchild of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) in the 70s, CITES makes environmental news headlines regularly, often with highly polarizing results. There are, however, several misconceptions surrounding this tool of the wildlife conservation industry and, as a result, its guiding principles tend to be lost beneath the layers of opposing conservation perspectives.

CITES founding philosophy

The treaty provides the following guidance as to its aim, operation, and how it should be interpreted:

  • Recognizing that wild fauna and flora in their many beautiful and varied forms are an irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the earth which must be protected for this and the generations to come;
  • Conscious of the ever-growing value of wild fauna and flora from aesthetic, scientific, cultural, recreational and economic points of view;
  • Recognizing that peoples and States are and should be the best protectors of their wild fauna and flora;
  • Recognizing, also, that international cooperation is essential for the protection of certain species of wild fauna and flora against over-exploitation through international trade; Convinced of the urgency of taking appropriate measures to this end;CITES

CITES is a treaty, not an organization

CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora; in other words, it is a multinational treaty of enormous scope that regulates international trade to avoid the over-exploitation of both animals and plants. As the name suggests, the ultimate intention behind the treaty is to protect endangered species, rather than control the actions of the member state, hence the Appendix listings (see below). At the time of writing, almost every sovereign state in the world is a party to the treaty, meaning that they have ratified the treaty and are, in theory, bound by its provisions. (A conversation around the nuances of international law is beyond the scope of this article).

It falls to the member states to use the treaty provisions and appendixes as guidance for creating their national laws and policies surrounding trade in animals and plants.

Not just about elephants and pangolins

When issues surround CITES surface and make headlines, they are almost always centred around the more contentious issues involving well-known animal species. The trade in ivory or rhino horn is a good example of this. While these issues rightly cause enormous consternation, the ambit of CITES goes far beyond these matters and provides a legal framework for the protection of more than 35,000 plant and animal species – meaning that it governs everything from the trade in furniture and musical instruments made from rare woods to trading in corals or caviar.

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The Appendixes

CITES does not control all international trade in wild species – the basic starting point is that all trade is allowed unless an animal or plant is in some way threatened and is placed under one of three appendixes to the treaty.

  • Appendix 1 – species threatened by extinction or by trade, such as cheetahs, chimpanzees and pangolins. Trade in animals listed under Appendix 1 is almost entirely banned except under exceptional circumstances, and both export and import permits are required. Any captive-bred animals are treated under the auspices of Appendix 2.
  • Appendix 2 – species whose numbers could become threatened if subject to uncontrolled trade. Only an export permit is required for trading in animals and plants listed under this appendix.
  • Appendix 3 – species included at the request of a member state wanting the cooperation of other countries to control exploitation.

It is for the member states to issue export and import permits (these can be subject to CITES scrutiny), but they are under an obligation to ensure that the species was legally obtained and should issue permits only if doing so will not be detrimental to the survival of the species. Although not mentioned explicitly by the treaty itself, a quota system is used to control trade  – the member states put forward their suggested quota number that is subject to CITES approval. As a brief side note – if an animal’s listing is changed (for example, due to declining numbers, it is moved from Appendix 2 to Appendix 1), a country may enter what is known as a Reservation – essentially meaning that they object to this classification for whatever reason and that they do not consider themselves to be bound by the reduced trade. This is what the Democratic Republic of Congo did in the case of the trade in the African Grey Parrot.


Conference of Parties

Every three years, the parties to the convention (the signatory countries) meet to review the implementation of the Convention. It is here that the Appendix listing of individual species is revised as an ongoing discussion as to their numbers and the success (or otherwise) of conservation efforts). The states can also make recommendations to improve the efficiency of the implementation of the treaty.

Three permanent committees support the Conference of Parties: the Standing, Plant and Animal Committees, created from representatives of the Parties that exist to deal with the day-to-day operation of CITES, creating a budget and standing groups as well as providing advice regarding species numbers. Only sovereign states are parties to the CITES treaty (some international treaties do include signatories from other international bodies), but the CoP events are attended by observers from non-governmental organizations involved in conservation or trade, as well as several UN agencies. These groups can participate in the meetings but are not allowed to vote in the proceedings. The next Conference of Parties will be held in 2022.


Quite aside from the more philosophical debates about sustainable use, CITES has the inherent limitations of any instrument of international law. There is no central enforcement agency, so infractions of state parties must be dealt with through more political and economic measures. In theory, Parties to the statute are required to have both Management and Scientific Authorities; laws prohibiting any trade in violation of CITES; penalties in the case of such trade; and laws providing for the confiscation of specimens, yet many Parties face severe challenges in this regard. If a Party is found to be in contravention of the treaty, the CITES Secretariat can recommend that other state Parties suspend all CITES-related trade.

CITES is a treaty related purely to the regulations of trade – it does not extend to conservation issues relating to habitat-loss or socio-economic challenges of wilderness areas.

Final word

As mentioned, the philosophy behind CITES aside, CITES is an international treaty and should be viewed as such. Countries are not forced to enter into an international agreement – they chose to do so and must face the responsibilities that choice confers. This does not necessarily mean agreement with every decision or restriction but rather, using the existing frameworks to voice those disagreements, as well as working towards international cooperation to guard against the over-exploitation of animal and plant species. The full treaty text can be found here.

Related: CITES processes are corrupt, says report.

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