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CITES and How It Can Help Animals

International wildlife trade has received an increasing amount of attention over recent years, whether this be due to the near extinction of pangolins, the trade in ivory or the export and import of 'trophies' from hunting. In this blog, Advocates for Animals solicitor Alice Collinson will explain how the international trade in wildlife is regulated.

What is CITES?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora regulates international trade in certain species (and their parts). The Convention was created in the 70s, and is supplemented by developing documents agreed between the Parties, namely ‘Resolutions’ and ‘Decisions.’ It relies on the signatory countries to implement the agreed provisions into their domestic law. International cooperation is one of its core principles, recognising wildlife as a shared responsibility. A Conference of the Parties is held every 3 years to discuss Party implementation and compliance, with Committee meetings in between.

What protections does it offer? It offers protection to endangered species that are placed in one of three Appendices, which provide varying degrees of protection. Appendix I species are afforded the strictest protection. There is a total prohibition against international trade in Appendix I species, unless the trade meets certain exemptions. In turn, contracting Parties agree to penalise trade (and possession) in CITES listed species at a national level. For example, trading pangolins internationally (as an Appendix I listed species) is restricted to where: the purpose of the trade is determined to be non-commercial and the trade is also determined to have minimal conservation impact. Further, specific mechanisms provide for changes to species protection. For example, species can be uplisted, reviews can be carried out where the trade in certain species is of concern, and draft Resolutions may be proposed to address gaps in implementation and other broader concerns.

How has it been used in the past to help animals?

Species are regularly uplisted by agreement. For example, in 2016 all pangolin species were uplisted to Appendix I.

In another example, in 2016 a Resolution was passed calling for a closure of domestic ivory markets, following which a number of countries have taken such steps, including the UK.

Anyone, including individuals and animal protection groups, are eligible to submit information and complaints to the CITES governing bodies relating to illegal wildlife trade. Failure to comply can lead to various measures, such as a request for progress reports on compliance, or a recommendation that a country suspends all (or just commercial) trade in one or more wildlife species until they remedy the Convention breaches. This is a last resort, but such recommendations are currently in place involving a number of countries and species. For example, all trade in African grey parrots was suspended in DRC in 2016 due to concerns relating to use of wild caught parrots.

Room for improvement?

CITES is ultimately focused on the sustainable utilisation of wildlife for human benefit.

The Convention does address animal welfare in the context of shipments of live animals, requiring that during the shipment of all CITES-listed species the ‘risk of injury, damage to health or cruel treatment’ is minimised. However, there are no broad animal welfare provisions.

Signatories are also permitted to put in Reservations in relation to Appendix listing in their countries. For example some African countries (including South Africa and Zimbabwe) have reserved the right to reduce the protection of their elephants by downlisting these elephants from Appendix I, to Appendix II.

Exemptions to trade are widely used. Trade in listed species is permitted provided that certain (importing and exporting) criteria are met, such as where trade is deemed to be non-commercial in relation to Appendix I species.

Not all Party countries have the agreed legislative framework in place, and in some countries, where legislation is in place, enforcement is lacking.

Tough sanctions by the CITES governing bodies, such as trade suspensions for breaches of the Convention, are seen as a last resort, following progress reports, cautions, and other steps.

Getting Advice

This blog post is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. If you require legal advice on animal protection laws please contact

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