Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

Source: Encyclopedia of Earth


As a result of growing global environmental awareness, and growing concern about the threats that international trade posed for many species, the idea for a multilateral convention concerning trade in endangered species was formulated in the 1960s under the umbrella of IUCN – The World Conservation Union. This culminated in the drafting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which was signed by 85 countries during a 1973 conference in Washington, DC. The treaty came into force in 1975 and, at the time of this writing (December 2006), 169 nations had become Parties.

While it is widely understood that habitat decline is the primary cause of endangerment for most species, trade in species, or parts of species, is a major cause of decline for some groups of animals and plants. This has included spotted cats for their furs, rhinoceros for horn, elephants and walrus for ivory and, more so in recent times, parrots and exotic reptiles for the pet trade, corals and fish for the aquarium trade, and sharks for their fins. Medicinal and ornamental plants are also exploited worldwide, as is tropical timber. Annual trade in wild species worldwide is now estimated to include several hundred million individual animals and plants, and it is a multi-billion dollar industry. Thus the need for CITES is ever more apparent. CITES also has the distinction, among international conservation agreements, of having the most legal strength behind it, and there is an abundant literature in the fields of law, conservation, international relations and economics about its global impact. To date, well over 30,000 species receive some protection under this landmark agreement, and more are being added on a regular basis.

The Provisions of CITES

CITES has 25 Articles and each is described briefly here. Article 1 provides broad legal and scientific definitions used in subsequent articles. A “species" under the Convention can refer to a biological species, subspecies or a separate population and a “specimen” can refer to any animal or plant, whether dead or alive, and/or any recognizable part or derivative thereof, that is listed on any one of the three Appendices (see below). Definitions are also provided for what constitutes trade, export, re-export, and the scientific and management authorities that the Parties are required to designate under the treaty.

The Fundamental Principles of CITES are described in Article 2: arguably the most important part of the Convention. This defines the criteria for listing under the three appendices. Appendix I is reserved for those species that are threatened with extinction that are now, or may become, further endangered by international trade. As such, trade in those species is prohibited for all Parties, although there are some exceptions. These include, for example, specimens that are raised in captivity or parts that were derived from specimens before the treaty came into force. Species listed on Appendix II fall into two categories. This includes those that are not necessarily threatened with extinction by trade, but may become so unless conservation measures are taken, and those that may look like other species affected by trade and listed on an Appendix. The second category includes, for example, all crocodilians. In this case, some species are common and can be commercially traded under the CITES permit system (such as American alligators and common caiman from many Latin American countries), while other are rare and are listed under Appendix I (Orinoco crocodile). This is meant to assure that rare species are not traded under labels of more common species. Appendix II listings have increased greatly over the years; all wild cats and wild orchids, for example, not listed in Appendix I are now listed in Appendix II. Appendix III includes species that are protected by individual States within their respective jurisdictions. Ghana, for example, protects all songbirds, and trade in any species, including those that are common, from that country is prohibited.

Articles 3 through 5 provide broad legal guidelines under which CITES operates to regulate trade in specimens or parts/derivatives there from, and defines the role of the Scientific and Management Authorities that all Parties are required to have. In general terms, the Management Authority of each respective party is responsible for issuing import and export permits for listed species in each Party, and the Scientific Authority has the responsibility for properly identifying specimens to assure compliance. In most Parties, the Management Authority is the national-level wildlife agency and the Scientific Authority may include government-funded research institutions such as a national Natural History Museum. Articles 6 and 7 describe in more detail the permit system, the role of both import and export permits, and exemptions under CITES for, for example, specimens propagated in captivity.

Articles 8 through 10 obligate Parties to take enforcement measures, including confiscation of and penalties for listed specimens illegally obtained, and it elaborates on the legal roles of the Scientific and Management Authorities. Article 10 seeks to ensure that trade with non-Parties to CITES does not undermine its objectives by requiring “comparable documentation” from non-parties in any transaction involving wildlife trade between Parties to non-Parties.

The CITES Secretariat is obliged under Article 11 to convene a Conference of Parties (COPs) at least biennially, and its role is further elaborated in Article 12 to arrange conferences, undertake research, and publish periodic editions of the Appendices. The Secretariat also performs the role of preparing annual research reports and implementing recommendations made at the COPs. The Secretariat is further responsible to inform Parties when they are not in compliance with CITES and instruct Parties to respond to such information. Inquiries are subject to review at the next COP and any Party has the power to make recommendations regarding non-compliance of any other Party. For example, the United States reprimanded Taiwan in 1994 regarding trade in tiger parts for traditional Chinese medicine, and threatened trade sanctions. Taiwan responded with further enforcement. Any Party is free to adopt domestic protective measures that are more strict that those required by CITES under Article 14, and Articles 15 and 16 provide procedures for amending the Appendices, while procedures for amending the Convention itself are set forth in Article 17 and procedures for dispute resolution are given in Article 18.

The remaining 7 articles of CITES deal with its administrative aspects. These include signature of the agreement (which closed in December of 1974), ratification (Article 20), and accession to the Convention (Article 21). Provisions for entry into force of the treaty (which took place in 1975) are set forth in Article 22 and procedures for making specific reservations are provided for in Article 23. Article 24 permits Parties to denounce CITES and Article 25 outlines the duties of the Depositary Government (Switzerland). The CITES Secretariat is within the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and is located in Geneva.


As both a conservation and trade convention, CITES has more obligations and more detailed enforcement mechanisms than is typical of conservation agreements. When CITES came into force, the original Parties were most concerned with a rather small subset of species that are or were used in the fashion industry (e.g., wild cats for fur, crocodilians for leather) or as ornaments (e.g. elephant ivory, wild cattle as trophy heads). Since that time, thousands of species, and in some cases entire taxonomic groups of species, have been added to the Convention simply because many people in both developed and developing countries have attained higher standards of living and are able to afford things that most could not 30 years ago. For example, in spite of being a Party to CITES, trade in tiger and other wild large cat parts, rhinoceros horn, and bile from bears has escalated greatly in the People’s Republic of China recently and now affects target populations of wild animals worldwide: this does not seem to be diminishing to any extent in spite of the major focus upon it. Poaching has escalated in recent years in all nations that border China (most of them also Party to CITES) and at the time of this writing, attempts to enforce the law and reduce demand have not kept pace with the ability of Chinese people to pay high prices for remedies that have no known medical value. Thus tropical Asia continues to lose its wild tigers, rhinos and bears.

In the West, awareness about such species is quite high and the former demand for large animal products for fashion leather and fur is now low. However, there is ever-increasing demand for exotic species as pets or ornamental plants in wealthy countries. The Parties to CITES took the dramatic action of including all species of orchids (upwards of 30,000 worldwide by some estimates; many still unclassified by science) on Appendix II of CITES except for those on Appendix I (9 taxa) in the 1990s. Similarly, the Parties have listed all Dendrobatids (poison dart frogs) due to recent escalating demand for those species; some species in the genus Phyllobates are so toxic that it is not safe to touch them, and yet some Americans and Europeans keep them as pets. There is also now a large trade (much of it is still unregulated by CITES) in wild reptiles for pets in the West, including some highly poisonous snakes and large constrictors. One outcome of the pet trade is the potential for biological invasion, since many of these species make poor pets and are thus abandoned by people in the wild. For example, Burmese pythons are now well-established and increasing in Everglades National Park, Florida. Trade in wild parrots as pets has been restricted under CITES, as has trade in coral and sea horses for private aquaria. The latter group is also used in traditional Chinese medicine and many populations worldwide have undergone dramatic collapses.

As CITES has expanded greatly through the inclusion of many more species and entire taxa on its Appendices, enforcement has become increasingly difficult worldwide. The United States, for example, has long been considered a leader in biological conservation efforts and has some of the best national laws in place; yet it maintains only about 100 qualified wildlife inspectors for all of its air and sea ports nationally and is still the largest importer of many animal and plant products. With so many listed species and differing permit requirements for those listed on CITES appendices, proper identification of specimens becomes increasingly difficult. This has resulted, for example, in legal shipments being held in quarantine for very long time periods, and (doubtlessly) many more illegal shipments having cleared through inspection or having passed through undetected. Corruption in developing countries is also very widespread for species protected by CITES. Cases have come to light for example, of forged Appendix II export permits having been issued from one country, when the specimens were in fact from a neighboring country that banned trade under Appendix III. In other cases, Appendix I specimens from the wild have been misrepresented as having been raised in captivity, permitting their trade when it should have been prohibited under CITES.

The worldwide TRAFFIC network that works in conjunction with the World Wide Fund for Nature (the World Wildlife Fund in the United States) and IUCN – The World Conservation Union, as well as the CITES Secretariat, regularly publishes bulletins concerning enforcement in trade in endangered species and is the best single source of information on CITES enforcement. Most people in international conservation agree that while the Convention itself articulates a strong and progressive legal framework and structure, much greater strides in enforcement are needed worldwide. Advances have been made to identify specimens or parts using molecular techniques and great strides have been made in many countries to infiltrate illegal smugglers of wildlife products, but ever greater problems have emerged with the expansion of CITES and the ever growing demand for species and specimens of species in many countries.

Further Reading

Heinen, Joel (Lead Author); Richard Reibstein (Topic Editor). 2007. "Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)." In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [Published in the Encyclopedia of Earth May 15, 2007; Retrieved September 17, 2008]. <>


(2008). Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Retrieved from


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