CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement among governments whose sole aim is to ensure that international trade in endangered specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The Convention currently regulates the international trade of about 35 000 wild species between its 183-member countries – called Parties – making it the largest, and potentially the most effective, conservation body in the world.
Elephants are undeniably the Convention’s flagship species; an elephant is incorporated in the CITES logo and more time and effort is spent on elephants than on any other species. In fact, one of the key criticisms of CITES is that elephants take up the bulk of proceedings, leaving thousands of other listed species with little or no attention and funding. CITES, therefore, ought to be the organisation that best safeguards the lives of elephants.
Fundamentally, as its name suggests, the Convention functions as a trade, and not a conservation, convention, per se. The organization does not determine in situ conservation measures for elephants or any other species, nor does it consider habitat loss or anthropogenic environmental degradation.
It allows Parties largely to self-regulate and participation in the Convention is voluntary. Each Party may designate one or more management authorities to administer a licensing system for exporting or importing a listed species, as well as one or more scientific authorities to advise them on the effects of trade on the status of CITES-listed species.
Paradoxically, countries that tend to have the highest elephant populations are also the least equipped and financially resourced to protect them. These poorer countries face difficulties carrying out accurate scientific research and are generally disadvantaged in controlling poaching and the illegal ivory trade; as such, they are susceptible to corruption. One has only to compare the under-resourced customs and scientific officers in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with those in the USA and Germany to understand the problem. It’s important to note, too, that although CITES is legally binding once Parties decide to participate, its regulations do not take the place of national laws. For example, even though Parties prohibit trade in ivory multilaterally or bilaterally, they are allowed to trade ivory commercially at a national level as CITES has no capacity to address trade within a country’s borders. All it can do is ‘urge’ or ‘recommend’ that Parties restrict or close down their markets. Almost every Party from Austria to Zimbabwe has a legal domestic ivory market in some form.
Also, punishments for poachers and criminals caught trafficking vary widely from country to
country. For example, while implicated in largescale ivory poaching, a country like Mozambique is notoriously lax in prosecuting offenders; and Laos, a country renowned for moving large volumes of ivory, has hardly brought any ivory traffickers to book in spite of clear evidence of such crimes. Again, CITES lacks the framework or the resources to address these issues adequately.
The Three Appendices
International trade in wild species is categorised in Appendices I to III, and a corresponding permitting system is instituted appropriate to the threat posed to those species by trade.
The Appendix I listing provides the highest possible protection given to any species under the
Convention and encompasses those threatened with extinction. Commercial trade in wild-caught specimens of these species is illegal, unless for non-commercial purposes, such as sport-hunted elephants for trophies, or under exceptional circumstances, such as for scientific research, captive-bred species, certain trade in live animals and educational purposes. In these exceptional cases, international transactions may take place provided they are authorised by the granting of both an import and an export permit.
Appendix II includes the largest body of threatened species under CITES regulations: 21 000 versus only 1 200 in Appendix I and 170 in Appendix III. These are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but may become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to some form of regulation. Such ‘protection’ still allows hundreds of thousands of global species to be traded annually.
Appendix III contains species that are protected in at least one country, which has asked other CITES Parties for assistance in controlling the trade.
CITES Conference of the Parties
The Conference of the Parties (CoP) is the supreme decision-making body of the Convention and comprises all its member states, as well as other United Nations agencies and international Conventions and NGOs. All are allowed to participate in discussions, although only Parties may vote.
Species can be added to or removed from Appendices I and II, or moved between them, only by the Conference of the Parties, either at its regular meetings or by postal procedures. Parties agree on a set of biological and trade criteria to help determine whether a species should be listed in Appendices I or II (species from Appendix III do not require CoP permission and may be added or removed at any time by any Party, unilaterally).
At each regular meeting of the CoP (usually every 3 years), Parties submit proposals based on those criteria to amend species listings within the first two appendices. The amendment proposals are discussed and then submitted to a vote. In order for a species to be listed, up-listed or down-listed, a two-thirds majority of Parties present and voting must be achieved.
The next CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP18) is in Geneva Switzerland 17th-28th August 2019.
The administrative and procedural duties of the Convention are conducted by the Secretariat, which is administered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and is located in Geneva. The Secretariat – apart from playing a coordinating, advisory and servicing role, arranging committee meetings between CoPs and providing recommendations on which way to vote on proposals – has limited capacity for enforcing regulations. When informed of a contravention, the Secretariat will notify all other Parties. It will then hand over the responsibility to the Standing Committee,
CITES Standing Committee
The CITES Standing Committee is made up of representatives of Parties from all six continents. The committee generally sits in session between CoPs and, importantly, provides policy guidance to the Secretariat concerning the implementation of the Convention.
At a Standing Committee meeting in January 2016, for example, 27 countries were dealt trade suspensions for non-compliance, 16 of them in Africa. The committee will usually give any offending Party time to respond to the non-compliance allegations, while the Secretariat may provide technical assistance to prevent further infractions. Failing that, all the Standing Committee and Secretariat are able to do is to recommend – not enforce – trade sanctions for any country that fails to comply with its regulations. Implementation of the recommendation to suspend trade depends entirely on each individual Party, although it was noted that about half the member Parties have not enacted internal laws for properly implementing the existing CITES system.