Science Articles

CITES and Trade in Threatened Species

Wed, 20th Apr 2005

Helen Scales

What have the following got in common: tiny, delicate seahorses, magnificent tall rainforest trees and the two biggest fish in the oceans? Well, the answer is that they have all recently been added to a list of endangered species that cannot be freely traded between countries. You might know that it's illegal to trade rare wild animals and animal products like tiger skins or rhino horn, but did you know that there are in fact around 30,000 species of wild animal and plant which have restricted trade according to the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES (pronounced sie-tees)?

In November 2002, the CITES conference was held in Santiago Chile, where governments and conservationists from 160 member states met to decide which species of wildlife would be added or removed from the convention. Resolutions were passed in Chile to control the trade in a number of controversial commercial species including seahorses, mahogany, and basking and whale sharks. Conservationists have hailed the meeting as a great success, and even Greenpeace cancelled a protest due to take place outside the conference hall, saying that it would no longer be necessary.

CITES is an agreement between Governments that aims to ensure that international trade in animals and plants does not threaten their survival in the wild. Like other international conventions such as the Kyoto Protocol for greenhouse gases, joining CITES is voluntary but then is legally binding to those countries that chose to make a contribution to the conservation of endangered species of wildlife. Each year the international trade in wild species is estimated to be worth billions of dollars and including hundreds of millions of plants and animal specimens. The trade is highly diverse, ranging from live animals sold for the pet trade, to a vast array of wildlife products derived from animals and plants, including food products, exotic leather goods, wooden musical instruments, timber, tourist curios and medicines.

The convention first came into force in 1975 and is made up of three different appendices in which species are listed according to the degree of protection they need. Trade is completely prohibited for species listed in Appendix I, since these are species are already threatened with extinction. Appendix II includes species that are not in immediate risk of extinction, but which soon will be if the trade is not closely controlled. Permits for trading species listed in Appendix II are only granted to exporting countries able to demonstrate that trading does not threaten the survival of the species concerned. There is a third appendix that contains species that are protected in at least one country, which has asked other CITES Parties for assistance in controlling the trade.

It has taken ten years of fighting to have big leaf mahogany listed on appendix II of CITES. Due to popularity of using this tropical hardwood for furniture making, this species is already extinct in Honduras and Columbia and is of the one reasons why the vast Amazon rainforest is being cut down. It was only a last minute decision in Chile to add Basking sharks and Whale sharks to Appendix II. These gentle, plankton-sifting giants are highly threatened by the demand for their meat, fins and liver oil. The basking shark is highly migratory and is regularly seen in waters around the UK. The trade in all 32 species of seahorse will also now be regulated for the first time. Seahorse populations have declined dramatically over recent years, with more than 20 million harvested each year for live sales to aquariums and dried for traditional Asian medicine, curios and souvenirs.

There were two major disappointments for the conservationists in Chile. Firstly, a plan has been made to allow Botswana, Namibia and South Africa to make one-off sales of legal ivory stockpiles that have been collected from elephants that died of natural causes or from government-regulated "problem-animal" culling. Opponents of the sales believe that legislation of the trade, no matter how limited, will lead to expansion in elephant poaching. The governments wishing to sell ivory argue that the proceeds will be used to conserve elephants and provide local communities with income.

PatagoniantoothfishSecondly, Australia decided to withdraw its proposal to list the Patagonian tooth fish, also known as the Chilean sea bass, on Appendix II in the face of huge opposition from pro-fishing countries. The culinary popularity of this species is feared to be threatening its future, as described in a recent article by Gene Mascoli.

Cambridge plays an important role in international trade in wildlife species. Trade in CITES-listed wildlife has to be reported annually to the CITES Trade Database, managed by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, which is based on Madingley Road. Cambridge also has an office of TRAFFIC, the trade monitoring program of WWF and IUCN (The World Conservation Union), which was set up in the 1970s to assist in the implementation of CITES.

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