running wild cheetah

Selling products made from endangered species is one of few things that seem to be illegal worldwide. That’s thanks to an international treaty spearheaded by the U.S. in the 1970s. The multilateral CITES — Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — established a global framework for wildlife protection.

What is CITES?

CITES is an international agreement to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The sale of wildlife specimens for food, pets, souvenirs, and medicine generates billions of dollars each year, involves thousands of species, and is driving some species toward extinction. Because the wildlife trade is international, any effort to regulate it requires international cooperation.

In January 1974, the U.S. became the first nation to ratify CITES. There are now 183 parties to the convention, providing near-global protection to more than 35,000 species of animals and plants.

How Does It Work?

CITES is a binding international agreement nations enter into voluntarily. The agreement requires each participant country to adopt its own domestic legislation to comply with the established protection framework. That framework subjects international trade in selected species to a licensing system. Each party to the Convention must establish a management authority in charge of the licensing system and establish a scientific authority to advise them on how trade affects the status of protected species.

Degrees of Protection

The species covered by CITES are listed in three appendices, according to the degree of protection they need. All three appendices include not only charismatic megafauna like elephants and tigers, but also birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates, and plants.

Appendix 1 includes about 1,000 species at risk of extinction. It bans almost all trade in specimens of these species.

Appendix 2 includes over 34,000 threatened species that require the protection of trade controls to maintain a sustainable population.

Appendix 3, with just over 200 species, is unique. Any party to the Convention can add a species to the list. Doing so is basically a request for assistance in protecting a species in the country. For instance, if a butterfly or bird species that is unique to a single locale, its home country can ask other nations to prevent trafficking in the species or its by-products.

Limits of CITES

The national laws that implement CITES, and the efficacy of their enforcement, are not uniform. A nation’s commitment to the protection of endangered wildlife can fluctuate over time. For example, U.S. data on wildlife imports helped establish the need for a Convention to regulate international trade in wildlife. Elements of CITES are predicated on U.S. law, notably the Lacey Act, which in 1900 became the first federal law protecting wildlife.

The Endangered Species Act is the national law which implements the Convention in the U.S. In the past year, numerous changes have been made to weaken protections under the Endangered Species Act. Unless citizens stand up for the Endangered Species Act to the president and Congress, the U.S., once the driving force behind the Convention, may become the weak link in international wildlife protection.

Will you contact your congressional representative to stand up for the Endangered Species Act?

Feature image: The cheetah is endangered throughout its range due to loss of habitat, reduced prey, and direct persecution. Photo: DrZoltan on Pixabay

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.