What is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species?

The international agreement known as CITES seeks to protect wildlife threatened by trade.

What is CITES?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, often referred to as CITES (SIGH-teez), is an agreement between governments that regulates the international trade of wildlife and wildlife products—everything from live animals and plants to food, leather goods, and trinkets. It came into force in 1975 with the goal of ensuring that international trade does not threaten the survival of wild plants and animals.

There are about 5,800 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants protected by CITES currently. They’re categorized into one of three appendices, depending on how at risk from trade they are.

As of June 2019, CITES had 183 party governments, which must abide by CITES regulations by implementing legislation within their own borders to enforce those regulations.

CITES was first conceived of at a 1963 meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the conservation status of wild animals and plants.

What are CITES appendices?

There are three appendices: Appendix I, II, and III. Each denotes a different level of protection from trade.

Appendix I includes species that are in danger of extinction because of international trade. Permits are required for import and export, and trade for commercial purposes is prohibited. Trade may be allowed for research or law enforcement purposes, among a few other limited reasons, but first the source country must confirm that taking that plant or animal won’t hurt the species’ chance of survival. (This is known as a “non-detriment finding.”) The Asiatic lion and tigers are two species listed as Appendix I.

Appendix II includes species that aren’t facing imminent extinction but need monitoring to ensure that trade doesn’t become a threat. Export is allowed if the plant, animal, or related product was obtained legally and if harvesting it won’t hurt the species’ chance of survival. American alligators are listed on Appendix II, for example. They were overhunted through the 1960s for their skin, but their numbers are now on the rise. CITES Appendix II listing helps ensure the alligator skin trade doesn’t become a threat again.

Appendix III includes species that are protected in at least one country, when that country asks others for help in regulating the trade. Regulations for these species vary, but typically the country that requested the listing can issue export permits, and export from other countries requires a certificate of origin. While honey badgers are listed as of least concern by the IUCN, their Botswana population is on CITES Appendix III because of concerns that they would be exploited in other African countries for use in traditional medicine and as bushmeat.

What happens at CITES meetings?

Every two to three years, CITES parties meet at what’s called the Conference of the Parties (or “CoP”) to evaluate how the convention is being enforced. The purpose of this two-week meeting is to consider new proposals for listing or removing species from appendices, to debate other decisions and resolutions about implementation of regulations, and to review conservation progress.

Appendix changes, the main event at the CoP, are proposed if a species is thought to need more—or less—protection from trade. For example, in 2016, the proposal to increase protections for pangolins, scaly, armadillo-lookalikes that are among the world’s most trafficked mammals, by moving them from Appendix II to Appendix I passed almost unanimously.

Police Raid What is Possibly Europe's Largest Illegal Turtle Farm

Officials seized more 1,100 turtles and tortoises from an alleged illegal hatchery on the Spanish island of Majorca in 2018. Some of the species found are prohibited from international commercial trade under CITES. Read the story here.

How effective is CITES?

CITES has plenty of critics. Some say conservationists flock to the two-week meeting every few years, fiercely debate the fate of endangered animals, and then go home, patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Meanwhile, the actual enforcement of the CITES regulations is left to the countries themselves—some of which don’t have the resources or political will to enforce regulations.

A 2019 analysis in the journal Science found that in nearly two-thirds of cases, CITES protections lag after a species is determined to be threatened by international trade. For example, while pangolins were finally added to Appendix I in 2017, an estimated million were trafficked between 2000 and 2013. Of the eight species of pangolins, half are endangered or critically endangered. The vast majority of animals that are in the wildlife trade are not protected by CITES.

If a party violates the convention, CITES can respond with sanctions, which prevent a country from trading in CITES-listed species. But countries are rarely sanctioned and the process can become highly politicized. What’s more, because CITES membership is voluntary, a country could simply leave CITES rather than accept sanctions.

Still, some say regulations are an important first step. Before CITES existed, international wildlife trade was largely a free-for-all—while individual countries tried to restrict the trade of threatened species, illegally exported products could be legally imported into many countries.

One success story CITES touts is the vicuña. In the mid-20th century, populations of the once-abundant llama relative had dwindled to about 10,000 animals because commercial demand for its fur led to widespread poaching. But after enacting conservation measures, including a CITES listing in 1975, populations rebounded. Today, the vicuña’s conservation status is least concern.