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International Law News

International Law News, Spring 2021

Can CITES Solve the Pandemic Problem?

Luke Stegman


  • The rise in Covid-19 vaccinations may herald a light at the end of tunnel for people worldwide struggling through a life-changing pandemic.
  • But experts are already pondering an important question: how to stop this from happening again.
  • Many public health officials argue that regulation of the $320 billion wildlife trade can help to prevent the next pandemic. Can the Convention on the International Trade of Wild Flora and Fauna be amended to fill this role?
Can CITES Solve the Pandemic Problem?
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The rise in Covid-19 vaccinations may herald a light at the end of tunnel for people worldwide struggling through a life-changing pandemic. But experts are already pondering an important question: how to stop this from happening again.

Many public health officials argue that regulation of the $320 billion wildlife trade — especially of markets where wild animals are sold — can help to prevent the next pandemic. Although there is no consensus about what the proper mechanism should be, some advocates suggest that the Convention on the International Trade of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) can be amended to fill this role. However, experts are divided on whether CITES is the appropriate tool for this job.

Covid-19 and the Wildlife Trade

Scholars point to CITES as a potential tool for preventing future pandemics because of the strong link between the wildlife trade and the spread of zoonotic diseases. Experts have long recognized this connection: for example, the 2002-2003 SARS pandemic was linked to the trade of live civets. Therefore, it is not a surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic was quickly linked to the wildlife trade, though our understanding of the precise link continues to evolve. Though the specific origin of the virus remains disputed, as does the precise host species, it appears certain that the wildlife trade played an important role in the spread of the virus. Accordingly, scientists and policymakers have begun to search for a regulatory mechanism to limit the international flow of wildlife that could pose a risk to public health.

CITES Secretariat Refuses Calls for Action

At first glance, CITES seems like the ideal candidate for such a regulatory framework: the treaty already regulates the flow of hundreds of wild species between parties and makes it unlawful, with the help of implementing domestic laws, to traffic in certain species that might be threatened by over-exploitation. However, the CITES Secretariat has disavowed calls to regulate the trade of species based on their potential disease risk, stating that “zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate” because “the concerns of the CITES Parties are focused on regulating international trade.”

This response provoked an immediate backlash, especially from conservation organizations. The Natural Resources Defense Council accused the Secretariat of “washing their hands” of an important issue, and the Franz Weber Foundation issued a letter decrying CITES’ lack of leadership. These commenters criticized the Secretariat’s interpretation of CITES’ scope as “very narrow” and point to other text in the Convention, including the preamble, as evincing a broader purpose than solely regulating exploitative trade.

However, others point out that the most natural reading of CITES’ text is to restrict trade for one sole purpose: “for the protection of certain species of wild fauna and flora against over-exploitation through international trade.” Under this view, the text—at least in its current form—limits the power of the CITES Secretariat to respond to pandemic issues.

CITES as a Solution?

Proponents of using CITES to address pandemic issues include experts in CITES and the wildlife trade, such as John Scanlon, the former CITES Secretary-General, and Dan Ashe, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The most compelling argument for using CITES is the treaty’s “global mandate”: it has over 180 parties and a legally enforceable regime that brings a robust monitoring and recording infrastructure. CITES is well-entrenched in the international trade community: it has a relationship with the World Organization for Animal Health and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as an existing permit regime that could potentially be adapted to regulate potentially infectious species. Given the difficulties in creating new treaties, adapting or amending an existing treaty for a new purpose would be more feasible than drafting an entirely new international agreement. Indeed, as one proponent as has stated, using CITES as a starting point for any pandemic prevention program “would give the nations of the world a huge head start in implementing any new protocols to combat the transfer of zoonotic diseases.”

However, using CITES as currently constituted would be almost impossible, as many of the species previously linked to emerging infectious diseases—such as horseshoe bats and palm civets—fall outside of the treaty’s current scope. Therefore, parties likely would have to change the language of CITES for use in the public health context.

Notably, proponents disagree over the best method to alter CITES. Some, like Ashe and Scanlon, argue that the key language of CITES can be amended to allow for the regulation of wildlife trade that poses a threat to human health. The Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime (EWC), has released proposed text of amendments to CITES that would add a new Appendix covering all species whose trade is considered to pose a risk to human or animal health. EWC proposes a separate permitting requirement in order for trade in species listed in that appendix to be lawful.

Others argue that the risks of amending CITES are potentially enormous: opening up the original text of CITES for amendment could lead to the Convention’s core provisions being hamstrung by amendments, which could damage CITES’ ability to preserve overexploited species. These commenters offer a different approach: an addendum to CITES that would only supplement, not replace, the original text of the treaty. This approach would ensure that the core of CITES would remain safe from pernicious amendments, but could also expand the scope of the Convention to apply to species that pose a high risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases.

Limitations to Using CITES

Not all sources agree that CITES is a proper vehicle for preventing future pandemics. Beyond objections that this would be inconsistent with CITES’ mandate, commenters have noted that CITES could not do anything to limit the domestic sale of potentially infectious wildlife or the conditions in wildlife markets that increase the risk of disease spillover. More fundamentally, Susan Lieberman contends that even an amended CITES would not be effective at preventing future pandemics, as it would only regulate the wildlife trade on a species-by-species level, rather than the sweeping reforms that would be necessary. Other commenters worry that this would only drive the trade underground, into the less-regulated illegal wildlife market.

In January 2021, EcoHealth Alliance released a publication examining legal mechanisms for preventing future pandemics. The analysis concluded that amending CITES could play an important role in preventing future pandemics, but this approach would still have significant limitations. EcoHealth Alliance also noted that CITES can do little to prevent domestic trade and that convincing parties to actually implement and enforce the treaty would seriously limit the Convention’s potential utility as a pandemic prevention tool.


CITES could be useful in preventing future zoonotic pandemics, especially if amended to expand its mandate. However, this would cause CITES to radically change its focus, whereas it has previously “stayed in its narrowly defined conservation lane.” Even if CITES was amended, it will not be a panacea; we must be mindful of the limitations of this approach and find other mechanisms to limit the wildlife trade and prevent another Covid-19.