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The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna is also known simply as CITES. It was signed 3 March 1973, entered into force 1 July 1975, and was ratified by 173 parties.

Purpose and issues

Besides the intrinsic value of animal and plant species, their diversity is an essential factor in maintaining important aspects of ecological equilibrium. They are also an important source of medical, pharmaceutical, and food products. However, since the early 19th century, extinction has taken on alarming proportions. The causes are well-known: world population growth, inappropriate farming methods, overuse of natural resources, habitat destruction, and industrial pollution.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the most complete indicator of biodiversity. It highlights the need to take urgent measures to stem the tide of species endangerment: out of 41,415 listed species, 16,306 are faced with extinction (vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered). One mammal in four, one bird in eight, a third of amphibians, and 70% of plants on the Red List are endangered.

There are numerous international texts aimed at ensuring the protection of plant and animal species. Often, they target a particular issue, such as the protection of one given species, zone, or region, or the regulation of a specific conservation issue. CITES is the first international instrument to build an elaborate licensing and control system for international trade in species listed in its appendices. International trade in species moves billions of dollars and millions of specimens each year. It is highly varied, involving both products and live species, and could lead to the depletion of some populations. The purpose of CITES is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wildlife does not threaten the species which those specimens belong to.


Some 5,000 fauna species and 28,000 flora species are protected by the Convention. They are listed in three appendices and classified by their vulnerability to extinction caused by international trade (see below). The appendices are classified by entire groups (such as cetaceans, primates, corals, or orchids), although sometimes only one subspecies or geographically isolated population is listed. While the best-known endangered species are emblematic ones such as whales or pandas, the largest groups protected by CITES are generally lesser-known, such as pitcher-plants, mussels, and frogs.

The basic principle of the Convention is simple: All import, export, re-export [export of an imported specimen] and introduction from the sea of species covered by the Convention has to be authorized through a licensing system. The species are classified in the various Appendices by degree of protection required:

– Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.

– Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but for which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.

– Appendix III contains species that are protected in at least one country, which has asked other CITES Parties for assistance in controlling trade.

Trade requirements differ depending on which appendix is involved. (1)

A specimen of a CITES-listed species may be imported into or exported (or re-exported) from a State party to the Convention only if the appropriate document has been obtained and presented for clearance at the port of entry or exit.

Effects and application

Although CITES is legally binding on Party States, it does not take the place of national laws. Rather it provides a framework to be respected by each Party, which has to adopt its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level.

Some Party states such as France took measures to distinguish species born and raised in captivity (e.g. some bird species to which certain protective measures do not apply).

Nevertheless, French courts have held that since these are still species whose international trade is strictly prohibited by reason of CITES (appendix I), the Convention must be applied, whether these birds are wild or bred in captivity. For example, a lower court’s acquittal of a defendant who had sold scarlet macaw specimens was overturned by France’s Cour de cassation, even though the birds were bred in captivity.

More generally, opinions are mixed regarding CITES’ effectiveness in protecting wildlife. The Convention only protects species with a trade value; allows for non-international trade in species; does not address habitat protection; and only covers endangered species. Moreover, countries hosting these species of high economic value are often very poor. CITES has therefore been accused of supporting the imperialist efforts of the richest countries by protecting some species to the detriment of exporting countries. The 14th COP in The Hague, 3 to 15 June 2007, studied the potential effect of its decisions on the existence of underprivileged rural dwellers, who are often the first to suffer the consequences of international decisions regarding wild species.

Additionally, 18 years after the CITES ban on the ivory trade, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe were granted an exceptional license to sell their government stocks of raw ivory as registered and checked as at 31 January 2007. The destination countries had to have passed CITES checks into the sufficient monitoring of their domestic ivory trade. After this sale, a 9-year hiatus will be enforced before any new sales are allowed.


At every ordinary session of the Conference of the Parties (COP), Parties submit proposed amendments to the appendices for discussion and voting. Unlike appendices I and II, appendix III may be unilaterally amended. The ninth COP (November 1994) was particularly important, since it was here that new species-listing criteria were defined for “endangered species”: population numbers must be low, the distribution area must be reduced, or the species must be in danger of declining. These criteria are used to list a species in appendix I or II. An active Secretariat manages the Convention and prepares annual reports. It also receives and distributes information that is crucial to undermining illegal trade.

CITES nevertheless encounters problems in implementation, such as poaching, bribery, smuggling, and the difficulty of identifying Convention-listed species at ports of entry or exit.

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