A look at CITES’ procedures and effectivity (part I)

Given that one of the most incendiary CITES meeting ever took place in Bangkok just last month, an in-depth look is needed in order for the public opinion to have a clear picture of how the conservation measures adopted by the Plenary could influence the international trade of those species that have been driven on the brink of extinction by their economic value and to better understand if the Convention’s procedure for listing really helps science-based arguments prevail over special interests. This is not merely a ‘policy’ issue, but rather an environmental one, since CITES’ positions reflect the stance of the entire international community coming down to the very survival of endangered species and given that a better implementation mechanism could achieve dramatic success and prevent an excessive exploitation of earth’s natural resources and biodiversity. As it happens with other intergovernmental bodies and conventions, in fact, control over the implementation of undertaken measures is the more difficult part to address in the whole process, especially considering that it is alternatively conducted at the national level (thus providing the means for unwilling countries to ‘escape’ commitments), too undetermined and ‘international’ (thus requiring mutual agreements between the involved States) or even almost impossible to monitor due to intrinsic reasons (think of high-seas and IUU -illegal, unreported, unregulated- fishing, for instance).


Before starting to address CITES’ procedures and the enforcement of its conditions, however, I should provide readers with a basic framework of the treaty’s operation, as well as with a few data on the international wildlife trade total volume and its impact on biodiversity and the environment.


In 2009, the estimated global imports value was over USD323 billion, and this figure excludes the vast and unregulated market of china-internet-wildlife-crackdownillegal wildlife trade, which -according to multiple sources- accounts for several billion dollars as well1. Wildlife trade, even the one that takes place within national borders, finds its primarymotivating factor in profit, ranging from local and small-scale activities (in the Fiji, those involved in the collection of marine specimens can expect a monthly income of USD452, compared to an average wage of USD502) to multinational companies and smugglers, and is driven by the global demand of food, healthcare (and not just traditional medicine), clothing, sport trophies, fuel, building materials and so on. In other words, there is good possibility everyone of us is involved in at least one aspect of the international wildlife trade (think of the timber used to make your floor or roof, which also has a 30% chance of coming from illegal logging3), most of the time without even knowing about it.


Given the size of wildlife products’ global market, it almost sounds obvious to say that wildlife trade accounts for a big part of the loss of world’s biodiversity, sometimes making pair with climate change, habitat loss and pollution. This kind of loss is not only threatening the survival of endangered species (which, if seen on moral grounds, could be a concern itself), but also putting food security and the income means of poor countries in jeopardy, as well as contributing to the environmental crisis (by both altering the ecosystems’ equilibria and using unsustainable methods to collect wildlife) and stealing natural resources’ sovereignty.

The Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) is an international treaty which was originally signed in 1973 to take a strong, worldwide stand against wildlife over-exploitation. In many ways, it can be said that it has achieved moderate success in the protection of world’s most endangered animals and plants but, on the other hand, fallacies are still present in its listing procedure and in the enactment process, and it is those fallacies that need to be addressed in order to improve the conservation status of many species which have seen their numbers shrink, almost to the point of extinction, in the last few years.


CITES operates by inserting endangered wildlife in the treaty’s three appendices, which amount to different protection levels; today I am jaglogabout to discuss the first two of them. Appendix I encompasses “all species threatened with extinction which are or may be affected by trade” (about 1200), including jaguars (panthera onca), tigers (panthera tigris), many species of whales, primates, birds and so on; for these plants and animals, international trade can be authorized just for non-commercial purposes, where the term ‘authorization’ refers to the possession of export and import permits granted by Scientific and Management Authorities of the involved states. Trade in the Appendix II species has to obey to much less stringent rules instead, as commercial purposes are permissible and an import certificate is not required; this appendix shall include “all species which although not necessarily now threatened with extinction can become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation in order to avoid utilization incompatible with survival”4.


That said, it is relatively easy to understand why, without a a science-based listing procedure and a sound, national monitoring over the implementation of trade restrictions, inserting a species into one of the treaty’s appendices can be largely irrelevant, especially in those cases where the interaction of habitat loss and poaching (i.e.: tigers or rhinoceros are still critically endangered despite being listed in the Appendix I) or a single country’s bias (i.e.: China and Japan’s behavior towards shark and whale conservation ismanta_gillsinfluenced by the economic value of their market) represent insurmountable obstacles to international law and its implementation. The Bangkok meeting having been incensed for the inclusion of five sharks species, manta rays and some hardwood trees species in CITES’ Appendix II, public opinion and governments should be aware that its landmark votes are just the beginning of a path, and not the final result of the protection process, which needs to be strictly overseen and assisted by seizures, sanctions, national policies and transnational anti-crime operations in order to be effective. Looking at the global picture, and considering that a) up to 100 million sharks get killed each year5, b) around 3,300 manta rays endure the same destiny (primarily for their gill rakers)and c) as I noted earlier, 30% of world timber imports is likely to come from illegal logging, effectivity is definitely the key word in this field.


(end of part one)




TRAFFIC, http://www.traffic.org/trade/
TRAFFIC, Dispatches No.23, February 2005, p.4
UNEP, Green Carbon: Black Trade Report
CITES, Convention Text
Boris Worm et al., Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks (2012)
Damian Carrington, Manta Rays: how illegal trade eats is own lunch (The Guardian, 05.03.2013)


Other references


T.Gehring and E.Ruffing - When Arguments Prevail Over Power: The CITES Procedure for the Listing of Endangered Species (2008)


Bowman, Davies, Redgwell – Lyster’s International Wildlife Law (2010)

11 commenti per “A look at CITES’ procedures and effectivity (part I)

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