Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

“This convention is one of the best tools we have for addressing international wildlife crime, and countries must hold each other accountable in order to make it even more effective. ”

Leigh Henry
Senior Policy Advisor, Species Conservation & Advocacy

What is CITES?

CITES, which stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is a global agreement among governments to regulate or ban international trade in species under threat. 

In the mid-20th century, governments were beginning to recognize that trade in some wild animals and plants had a devastating impact on those species. These species were being driven toward extinction through unsustainable use for food, fuel, medicine, and other purposes.

And while individual governments could control what happened within their borders, they did not have a way to address the impacts of international trade in these species. In 1973, 21 countries addressed this issue by signing the CITES agreement.

Conservation impacts

After four decades, CITES remains one of the cornerstones of international conservation. There are 183 member Parties and trade is regulated in more than 35,000 species. Representatives of CITES nations meet every two to three years at a Conference of the Parties to review progress and adjust the lists of protected species, which is grouped into three categories with different levels of protection:

  • Appendix I: Includes the world’s most endangered plants and animals, such as tigers and gorillas. International commercial trade in these species, or even parts of them, is completely banned, except in rare cases such as scientific research.
  • Appendix II: Contains species like hippopotamus and many corals that are not yet threatened with extinction, but which could become threatened if unlimited trade were allowed. Also included are “look-alike” species that closely resemble those already on the list for conservation reasons. Plants and animals in this category can be traded internationally, but there are strict rules.
  • Appendix III: Species whose trade is only regulated within a specific country can be placed on Appendix III if that country requires cooperation from other nations to help prevent exploitation.

CITES also brings together law enforcement officers from wildlife authorities, national parks, customs, and police agencies to collaborate on efforts to combat wildlife crime targeted at animals such as elephants and rhinos.

Bold action in Geneva, Switzerland

CoP18 will be held in Geneva, Switzerland from August 17 to 28, bringing together governments from around the world, enforcement agencies, and NGOs to review progress, update listings for species threatened by commerce, and strengthen management of the international trade of threatened and endangered species.

WWF hopes governments will recognize the serious threat of wildlife crime and will hold countries accountable for failing to meet their commitments to protecting endangered species. At CITES, WWF will focus on advocacy and promotion of items related to the illegal trade of elephant ivory, rhino horn, tiger parts, and certain marine species. WWF’s top priorities at CoP18 include:

  • Phasing out ‘tiger farms’: As the number of tiger farms continues to be a threat to tiger conservation, particularly in China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—WWF calls on these governments to phase out their country's tiger farms and end trade in tiger parts from any source.

  • Closing ivory markets and improving National Ivory Action Plans (NIAPs): Vietnam and Mozambique are two of the largest players in the illegal ivory trade and need to be subjected to wider and more systematic compliance procedures within CITES. WWF strongly encourages the closure of legal domestic ivory markets that are contributing to poaching and illegal trade.

    WWF will push for the National Ivory Action Plans (NIAPs) process to be clearer, more transparent, and to hold countries accountable for carrying out these plans. National Ivory Action Plans (NIAPs) outline the specific, time-bound steps countries will take to combat the illegal trade of ivory.

  • Pressuring Vietnam to strengthen regulations on ivory and rhino horn: Vietnam is a country of key concern for its role in both legal and illegal trade in CITES-listed species. The Vietnamese Government must strengthen and enforce its laws, prosecute those engaged in illegal wildlife trade, and put in place policies and programs that reduce demand for rhino horn, ivory and tiger products.

  • Accountability in the illegal trade of totoaba and bycatch of the critically endangered vaquitaWWF is calling for urgent action from the U.S., Mexico, and China to address the illegal international trade in totoaba, and the resulting bycatch of the vaquita porpoise – a species on the brink of extinction.

Since the last CITES CoP three years ago, international momentum continues to build against wildlife crime, with a number of actions and commitments from governments. The CoP represents an opportunity to put these commitments into action through strong measures on illegal wildlife trade, corruption, demand reduction, and compliance.

The agenda for this year’s CoP includes a record number of agenda items up for debate. WWF will be pushing for the adoption of proposals critical to fighting the illegal wildlife trade and calling for countries that fail to meet their commitments to be held to account under CITES, facing trade suspensions if necessary.