Keeping wildlife in the wild

The future of tuna, sharks and many other species, will be debated in the next two weeks, as Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meet in Qatar for the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to discuss regulation of international wildlife trade.

Black rhino (Diceros bicornis)

Bluefin tuna © M. San Felix
Bluefin tuna

Unsustainable trade in wildlife is one of the central threats to biodiversity as it concerns thousands of plant and animal species, and can push them close to extinction. This issue affects a wide range of live animals and plants as well as a vast array of products derived from them, including food, fur, leather goods, musical instruments, timber, tourist souvenirs, perfume, and medicines.

How can CITES help?

Wildlife trade is big business, estimated to be worth billions of dollars annually. As wildlife and its products cross borders between countries, extra efforts and international cooperation are necessary to regulate it and safeguard certain species from over-exploitation.

CITES accords protection to more than
30,000 species of animals and plants.

CITES was conceived in the spirit of such cooperation. It entered into force in 1975 and today has 175 Parties. It is both a conservation treaty and a trade treaty. It aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival and further contribute to the current extinction crisis.

Decisions taken at CITES meetings have not only ecological impacts but also strong economic and social ones: commercially important species such as fish, which are commonly traded both for consumption and for use in aquaria , are gaining an increasingly prominent place on the Parties’ agenda. CITES’ decisions are legally binding and are accompanied by enforcement measures and sanctions.

How does CITES work?

CITES grants varying degrees of protection to more than 33,000 species of traded animals and plants, through a system of permits and certificates. The species of concern are included in one of three lists, which are called Appendices.

CITES Appendices
  • Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in these plants and animals is permitted only in exceptional circumstances, such as for research.
  • Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but for which trade must be controlled in order to avoid threats to their survival.
  • Appendix III lists species that are protected in at least one country, which has asked for assistance in controlling the trade.

How is CITES work related to the Convention on Biological Diversity?

Implementing decisions taken by the CITES Convention requires ensuring links to other relevant biodiversity conventions. The link with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is particularly strong. CITES helps to protect wild animals and plants threatened by global trade and safeguard their natural environments, which helps to fulfill the objectives of the CBD: conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources. The work of CITES is therefore essential to support achievement of the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity. In turn, the activities of the CBD also complement the work of CITES.

Dr Sue Mainka, head of IUCN’s Science and Learning Programme, the Head of IUCN’s delegation at CITES CoP15, highlights CITES’ involvement in achieving the CBD’s 2010 biodiversity target:

“Similar to the Convention on Biological Diversity, CITES has its own strategic plan, which explicitly recognizes the CBD’s 2010 target and the potential role that CITES can play in achieving it. What’s interesting in this year’s meeting is that we’re starting to see discussions of cases where trade is compounded by other threats, for example, the polar bear discussion is about trade and climate change and the role the two of them play together in the survival of that species,” she says.

Which species will CITES focus on this year?

At each meeting, Parties to the CITES Convention consider species for which they want to regulate trade but they also discuss details about enforcing decisions that have already been agreed upon.

“In terms of species that are being considered for either a new listing on the CITES Appendices or a change in listing, tuna, elephants, polar bears, and corals are probably the most well publicized ones this year. But delegates to this year’s meeting will also be discussing other issues about species that are already included in CITES Appendices. For various reasons, continued discussion is needed about how CITES’ decisions and resolutions should be enforced.”, says Dr Mainka

What is IUCN’s role at CITES?

IUCN was instrumental in creating CITES and it has attended and contributed to CITES meetings since the inception of the agreement. The Convention itself began as a result of a resolution that was passed at an IUCN meeting in Nairobi in 1963. Today, the Convention has 175 Parties and IUCN continues to support the implementation of the Convention. A strong delegation of IUCN representatives will be present at this year’s meeting in Qatar, providing scientific information on species status and helping the Parties make scientifically-based and well-informed decisions. The Union acts as an advocate for species conservation and the potential role that CITES can play in helping to support this.

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