At Thirty Five, Endangered Species Treaty Has Mixed Record

by Yee Huang

July 23, 2010

July 1 marked the 35th anniversary of the effective date entry-into-force of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). While CITES is among the stronger international conventions, its strength is diminished by a lack of an enforcement mechanism and political maneuverings.

The arrests and cargo seizures may not make headlines often, but international trade in endangered species is one of the most valuable illegal markets, behind drugs but potentially comparable to arms and human trafficking. According to a 2008 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, the global trade in illegal wildlife is valued at more than $5 billion and potentially exceeds $20 billion annually. For example, the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterfly (Orinthoptera alexandrae), which can have a wingspan of up to 14 inches, sells for as much as $10,000! Some of the more valuable species commodities are tiger parts, caviar, elephant ivory, rhino horn, and exotic birds and reptiles. Although no official statistics exist, the CRS report estimates that the United States purchases as much as 20% of the global market in illegal species. Other main importers include China and countries in the European Union.

The illegal wildlife trade poses serious environmental harms, including reduction of biodiversity, introduction of invasive species, and transmission of disease. The CRS report also links illegal wildlife trade to national security, noting that traffickers use the same routes and even vessels for arms, drugs, and wildlife.

CITES is one of the most robust international conventions, with 175 ratifying countries, including the United States. It protects approximately 5,000 animal species and 28,000 plant species against over-exploitation from international trade and also recognizes the need to protect these species for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

CITES divides protected species into three appendices:

  • Appendix I. Species listed in Appendix I are considered the most endangered species, and all trade in these species is forbidden except in “exceptional circumstances.” Familiar species in Appendix I include the mountain gorilla, tigers, and all sea turtles.
  • Appendix II. Species listed in Appendix II are not currently under the threat of extinction but may become threatened without strict regulation of trading. Trade in these species requires an export permit that certifies that the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the specie; the specie was not acquired illegally; and the export process will not injure the specie. Familiar species in Appendix II include the American alligator and bobcat.
  • Appendix III. Species listed in Appendix III are species that a country regulates under domestic law to prevent or restrict exploitation, and trades require an export permit that certifies that the specie was not acquired illegally and that the export process will not injure the specie. For example, the United States has listed the alligator snapping turtle and Canada has listed the walrus.

Every two and a half years, CITES requires a Conference of the Parties (CoP) meeting, during which CITES parties decide whether to add or remove species from Appendix listings. The most recent meeting was held in Doha, Qatar, in March. CITES countries failed to support proposals by the United States to list Atlantic bluefin tuna and certain shark species, as well as proposals to regulate trade in pink and red coral and to ban trade in polar bear hides.

One mark of CITES' success is that in the past 30 years no species listed under the treaty has gone extinct. At the same time, though, the global appetite for endangered wildlife has grown into an increasingly profitable black market.

Like many international conventions, CITES suffers from a lack of enforceability and a lack of political support at the government level to stop trading in certain species.

  • Enforceability. While countries sign on to the convention, CITES itself does not contain an enforcement mechanism to prevent or regulate trade in listed species. Instead, CITES relies on countries to use or pass domestic laws, which are of varying stringency or may not exist at all. Even if the laws exist, a country may have few resources to implement them or to inspect most imported shipments.
  • Lack of Political Support. Proposals to list species tend to die not by scientific and biological assessments but by political maneuvering to align the necessary votes to defeat proposals. In its successful campaign to defeat the Atlantic bluefin tuna listing, the Japanese delegation used “backroom horse-trading skills honed by years of negotiations and maneuvering at the International Whaling Commission” (Christian Science Monitor). Japanese delegates even served the bluefin tuna the night before the vote.

While the external pressures and politics of listing will persist, CITES countries can address the enforceability problem by strengthening the convention itself, establishing a central enforcement body, or adopting minimum requirements for domestic laws. Amendments to CITES require a petition by one-third of the ratifying countries and a two-thirds vote in support of the amendment. Individual countries can take action against others that continue to trade in listed species, as well.

Happy Birthday, CITES. May the next 35 be stronger.


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