The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement to which governments voluntarily adhere and which seeks to ensure that the trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
The annual international trade in wildlife is estimated to be worth billions of dollars and ranges from live animals and plants to a vast array of products and derivatives, including food, exotic leather goods, wooden musical instruments, timber, tourist curios and medicines.
Some animal and plant species are heavily exploited and the impact of trade, together with other factors such as habitat loss, poaching and trafficking, has the potential to seriously deplete their populations – pushing some to the brink of extinction. Many wildlife species in trade are not endangered, but the application of an agreement to ensure the sustainability of any trade is critical to safeguarding them for the future.
CITES was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at a meeting of members of The World Conservation Union (now the International Union of the Conservation of Nature). It entered into force on July 1, 1975 and today accords varying degrees of protection to more than 38,000 species of animals and plants.
Countries which have agreed to be bound by the Convention are known as ‘Parties’. Although CITES is legally binding on the Parties, it does not take the place of national laws but instead provides a framework around which each Party is expected to develop and adopt its own domestic legislation to implement the Convention and to ensure trade does not endanger wild animals and plants. Critically, if Parties fail to adequately implement the Convention, trade sanctions may be introduced to encourage compliance, which technically makes CITES a convention with ‘teeth’.
At present, 184 Parties have opted to be bound by the provisions of CITES.
What is the Conference of the Parties (CoP)?
The Conference of the Parties (CoP) is the supreme body of the Convention, comprising all Parties. Every three years, the Conference of the Parties meets to review the implementation of the Convention. These meetings last for about two weeks and are usually hosted by one of the Parties. The meetings are widely referred to as ‘CoP’ followed by a sequential number indicating the unique identity of the individual meetings (the first meeting was CoP1, the second CoP2 and so on).
What is the Standing Committee?
The Standing Committee meets on an annual basis to provide guidance concerning the implementation of the Convention. The Standing Committee comprises Parties representing each of the six major geographical regions (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Central and South America and the Caribbean and Oceania). Membership of the Standing Committee is reviewed at every CoP meeting.
Similar to CoP meetings, Standing Committee meetings are referred to as ‘SC’ followed by a sequential number to identify the individual meeting.
What are the Animals and Plants Committees?
The Animals and Plants Committees (known as AC and PC respectively) are expert groups with biological and other specialized knowledge about the species of animals and plants which are (or might become) subject to CITES trade controls.
Their role is to provide technical support to decision-making about these species. They meet twice between CoPs and are comprised of members from the six major geographical regions.
What are the CITES appendices?
The CITES appendices are lists of animals and plants afforded different levels or types of protection from over-exploitation.
Appendix I lists those species deemed most endangered. They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial, such as for scientific research, when trade may be allowed if authorized by both an import permit and an export permit (or re-export certificate).
Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction at present, but which may become so unless trade is carefully controlled. International trade in specimens of species listed in Appendix II may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary under CITES. Permits and certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.
Appendix III lists species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species and needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. International trade in specimens of Appendix III species is allowed only on presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates. Species may be added to or removed from Appendix I and Appendix II, or moved between them, only by the Conference of the Parties, either at its regular meetings or by postal procedures.
Why does EIA engage with CITES?
EIA’s engagement with CITES processes stretches back decades and contributes to our overall aim to research and campaign against environmental crime and abuse. Given our focus on species which are threatened with extinction, such as elephants, tigers, pangolins, rhinos and numerous tree species, we work to ensure that CITES provisions are robust enough to protect these species from unsustainable trade.
At CITES meetings, the participation of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) such as EIA (known as Observers during the meetings) is a key part of the process. Prior to and during the meetings, our work includes a range of activities including submission of briefing documents for consideration by the Parties, holding key side-events to draw attention to specific issues, making statements from the floor (known as ‘interventions’) and lobbying behind the scenes – speaking to key Parties and establishing their positions.
We provide information and expert opinion to decision-makers. Indeed, evidence obtained by EIA has been instrumental in securing some of the most important policy outcomes of CITES, such as the 1989 global ban on commercial ivory trade.
We push for country-specific and timebound activities to be directed at Parties identified as playing a key role in illegal wildlife trade and this may sometimes involve lobbying for trade sanctions.
EIA campaigners attend all meetings of the Standing Committee and Conference of the Parties.
You can learn more about EIA’s focal issues at CoP19 here