Explainer: what is CITES and why should we care?

CITES has become the premier multilateral arrangement to tackle illegal wildlife trafficking. Ross Harvey

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international regulatory treaty between 182 member states. It was formed in 1973 and regulates the international trade in over 35,000 wild species of plants and animals.

The 17th Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17) will be hosted by South Africa running from 24 September to 5 October.

The focus of the convention is not solely on the protection of species. It also promotes controlled trade that is not detrimental to the sustainability of wild species. It has become the best-known conservation convention in the world.

Illegal wildlife trafficking is a major global problem and CITES is the premier multilateral arrangement to address the problem. The upcoming conference is therefore crucial for advancing human and environmental welfare.

The nature and size of the problem

A recent United Nations report states that the trafficking of wildlife is both a specialised area of organized crime and a significant threat to many plant and animal species.

For instance, there has been an alarming 85% increase in the number of African rhinos poached since 2009. There are only about 20,000 white rhinos left, and fewer than 6,000 black rhinos.

And the latest Great Elephant Census reveals that there are only about 375,000 savannah elephants remaining in Africa. Populations are currently shrinking by 8% per across the continent, primarily due to poaching.

Katarzyna Nowak, research associate in Zoology and Entomology at the University of the Free State, notes that illegal wildlife trade deprives nations of their biodiversity, income opportunities and natural heritage and capital.

A 2015 paper in an Oxford journal states:

Most mammalian megafauna face dramatic range contractions and population declines… 60% of the world’s largest herbivores are classified as threatened with extinction on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

In addition to poaching and trafficking, habitat contraction and fragmentation threaten species survival. Livestock encroachment into wildlife habitats, land-use change and armed conflict combine to account for contraction. Fragmentation also threatens large migratory species, as smaller pockets of protected areas often cannot support sustainable populations of large herbivores and carnivores.

CITES can therefore only deal with one dimension of a much broader problem. But the more effective it becomes at dealing with trafficking, the more traction is likely to be gained in tackling the others.

Range contractions overtime for three iconic species G Kerley Science Advances

How does CITES work?

The convention works primarily through a system of classification and licensing. Wild species are categorised in Appendices I to III. This often reflects species’ threat status on the Red List of the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species first created in 1964.

Appendix I prohibits trade in species classified as highly endangered. Appendix II allows trade under very specific conditions. This requires exporting countries obtain a permit, but not the importing country. Appendix III species require only a certificate of origin to be traded.

National CITES management authorities may issue permits once scientific authorities show non-detriment findings. In other words, scientific evidence must demonstrate that species sustainability will not be adversely affected by trade. Where data is lacking, the precautionary principle applies.

For instance, elephants are protected under Appendix I and II because of the geographically differentiated threats facing different populations. Either way, if countries cannot demonstrate that the trade in ivory will not result in species decline, they will not be allowed to trade.

Part of the difficulty of allowing the occasional sale of ivory is that sufficient, reliable data on how markets may respond is not available. A vast volume of ivory is sold illegally, and so scientists and statisticians cannot get good data to establish whether one-off sales of ivory exacerbate demand for ivory, or what kind of impact sales may have on speculative activity.

Proximate threats faced by herbivores globally. Science Advances

CITES challenges

Estimates from seizure data to make inferences about market dynamics is risky. The precautionary principle suggests that no trade in ivory should be allowed, given the current rates of elephant slaughter across central and east Africa, even though some southern populations are apparently not at risk of decline.

In technical terms, there is an added difficulty of what is called the split-listing problem. Here, some elephants are listed on Appendix II - now the largest volume - and all others are listed on Appendix I. Appendix II-listed elephants were subjected to a moratorium on future trade after the 2008 one-off sale. This is due to expire in 2017, and South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe have submitted a proposal to be allowed to sell their naturally accruing ivory again.

Another difficulty with migratory species is establishing which member state the elephants actually belong to. If an elephant wakes up in Zimbabwe and goes to sleep in Botswana, whose elephant is she? The upcoming conference will have to deal with these kinds of questions.

The convention also requires that traded species be clearly marked and have legitimate certificates of origin. Seizures of specimens are not allowed when permits are invalid, fraudulent or dubious. Unfortunately, trafficking syndicates are particularly adept at circumventing these measures by forging permits or laundering wild-caught species through captive-breeding facilities.

The secretariat may recommend trade suspension where countries fail to comply with CITES provisions. Trade suspensions were handed to 27 countries at the recent 66th meeting of the CITES standing committee, 16 of them in Africa. For example, countries that failed to submit National Ivory Action Plans were issued with suspensions.

The World Conservation Monitoring Centre, a specialist arm of the UN Environment Programme, manages the CITES trade database and evaluates whether parties are effective at enforcing recommended suspensions.

Will CITES succeed at reducing trafficking?

The convention faces a tremendously difficult task. It was initially designed to regulate trade, not to defeat illegal wildlife trafficking. The convention in itself is relatively powerless to defeat powerful, well-organised transnational crime syndicates. But working in collaboration with other multilateral agencies it can ensure greater success in regulating trade in species as well as protecting irreplaceable biodiversity.

Many countries do not have the capacity to adapt their national laws to enforce CITES provisions and recommendations. For instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is racked by internal armed conflict and therefore lacks the capacity to do so. But enforcement is crucial to ensuring the convention’s future efficacy.

Countries with capacity should help those without. Harmonisation of legislation, and equally strong penalties between countries, is also a prerequisite for success.

The more countries start to see that wildlife conservation is not the preserve of a wealthy few or some random single-issue lobby group, but rather integral to the survival of humanity, the more likely CITES is to gain real policy efficacy.

Why should you care?

CITES is a crucial instrument for ensuring that species are not traded in a way that threatens their survival. If, for instance, the world wants to secure a future with elephants, member states would do well to shut down all domestic ivory trade, and to put all stockpiles beyond commercial use. The Elephant Protection Initiative, for instance, calls on members to do this. It provides an excellent example of states adopting policies that complement CITES regulations.

Elephants and other charismatic species are important to conserve not just because they have inherent value, but also because they play a key role in ensuring the ecological integrity of their migratory habitats.

These habitats – wilderness landscapes - not only preserve wildlife species, but also operate as invaluable carbon sinks. This shows us that properly regulating trade in wild fauna and flora is one crucial component of addressing other major challenges like climate change.

The Conversation

Ross Harvey works for the Governance of Africa's Resources Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. The programme is funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The programme is also currently running a research project on elephant conservation and ivory consumption that is funded by Stop Ivory.