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May 01, 2023

CITES: 50 Years Later

Yolanda Eisenstein

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) arose from a 1963 resolution by World Conservation Union (IUCN) members in Nairobi, Kenya. In 1973, the treaty was finalized by representatives from 80 countries meeting in Washington, D.C. While the need for a wildlife treaty seems obvious today, at the time conversations about endangered species were relatively new. The world was just beginning to see that wild animals were not a limitless resource. For example, the fur trade had decimated populations of big cats, but there were no international agreements or oversight for protecting the remaining big cats in the wild.

Fifty years later, CITES regulates a legal wildlife trade industry valued at approximately $119 billion annually. And depending on which figures one chooses to believe, the illegal trade numbers are between $7 – 20 billion annually. Depending on the value, illegal trafficking is now the third or fourth most profitable crime behind drugs, human trafficking, and arms.

But illicit finances are only part of the story. The money that can be made in the illegal wildlife trade has cemented its connection to organized transnational crime, including the resulting corruption of political systems and overlap with the illicit drug trade, human trafficking, and smuggling. Thus, wildlife trafficking is about more than just animals. Beyond the loss of species, illicit trade contributes to immeasurable human harms. Its threat to animal health means threats to human health.  If animals and animal parts designated for scientific research are smuggled into the country, they bypass health and safety inspections, placing human health at risk and risking the spread of zoonotic diseases. The health of the planet is also at stake. Habitat loss, climate change, and the unsustainable taking of wildlife are all contributors to the rapid extinction of species and loss of biodiversity.

In 1973 the CITES parties did not anticipate the extent of the impact surrounding illegal trade in wildlife. The treaty was conceived as an international agreement on trade that would allow countries to regulate legal commerce in endangered and at-risk species of animals and plants. There are currently 184 Parties to CITES. They regulate the import and export of various species through one of three categories: Species in Appendix I are threatened with extinction and trade is strictly controlled; Appendix II animals and plants may become extinct if trade is not regulated; and Appendix III provides a category for Parties to use at their discretion for certain species they decide need protection or monitoring.  Each member country agrees to enforce the treaty's provisions by managing the process, issuing permits, enforcing regulations, penalizing violators, and confiscating illegal specimens.

While far from perfect, CITES has been one of the more successful animal- and environment-related multilateral treaties. One essential provision that many experts point to as the reason for its success is the mandatory conference of the parties. Article XI requires the Secretariat to convene regular meetings to review the convention's implementation. It provides a forum for Parties to meet and assess progress and propose changes if necessary.

The most recent conference, CoP 19, was held November 14-25, 2022, in Panama City, Panama. The Parties adopted 42 of 52 proposals and voted to add or change the status of more than 500 species within the CITES Appendices. Sharks, tortoises, birds, amphibians, and more than 100 tree species were added to CITES.  In a positive outcome for elephants, the Parties agreed to a continuation of the ban on the international ivory trade, although the Parties simultaneously rejected a proposal to move the African elephants from Appendix II to Appendix I, declining to increase the severity of the threat to their existence.

It is difficult to assess to what extent CITES has been instrumental in the recovery of tigers or slowed the extinction of species. Today, the treaty's primary challenges are less about implementing the existing convention and more about addressing issues beyond CITES's original scope. For example, habitat loss, climate change, zoonotic diseases, and organized crime all impact the trade in animals beyond the originally envisioned purview of CITES, which arguably require new and additional international tools and cooperation.

One positive step forward is the recent passage of American Bar Association (“ABA”) Resolution 508, adopted on February 6, 2023, sponsored by the ABA International Law Section; Criminal Justice Section; Tort, Trial and Insurance Practice Section; and the Section of Environment, Energy and Resources. The resolution states:

Resolved, That the American Bar Association urges all Parties to the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime [UNTOC] to adopt a wildlife crime protocol that would: (1) define the term “wildlife crime”; (2) identify the measures that Parties would be called upon to adopt in their domestic laws to prevent and combat wildlife crime; and (3) identify measures that would improve cooperative global enforcement efforts to prevent and combat wildlife crime.

UNTOC is the leading international treaty to fight transnational organized crime. It currently has 190 Parties, including the United States, and three protocols: (1) Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children; (2) Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air; and (3) Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms. Adding a fourth protocol on wildlife crime would rightfully place illegal trafficking among the most serious crimes and enhance efforts to combat it under the convention. Efforts are ongoing to move the protocol forward.           

Wildlife crime is a growing international problem for developed and developing countries and a significant contributor to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Illegal trade does not operate in isolation. Organized transnational crime threatens livelihoods and economic development and contributes to political instability. Unfortunately, domestic laws are often inadequate, plus many countries lack the resources to fight organized crime’s broad reach. Countries must collaborate to strengthen existing laws and bolster enforcement to stop illicit trade. CITES is one of the tools, but the challenges are extensive.  

    Yolanda Eisenstein

    Attorney and President of the UIA Animal Law Commission Working Group

    Yolanda Eisenstein is an attorney and president of the UIA Animal Law Commission Working Group. She is a vice chair of the ABA International Law Section International Animal Law Committee and president of the board of Animal Protection Voters New Mexico. She has published several books, including Careers in Animal Law and The American Bar Association Guide to Dog Laws.

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