Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)

Humane Society International

The international commercial wildlife trade is worth billions of dollars annually and has been responsible for the decline of wild populations of a number of species of animals and plants. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was first signed in 1973 in order to protect certain species of wild fauna and flora against over-exploitation through commercial trade. CITES first entered into force on July 1, 1975, and now more than 170 nations (“Parties”)have signed and ratified the CITES treaty.


CITES provides three levels of protection (Appendices) for species in international commercial trade.

Appendix I includes those species that are threatened with extinction and that are or may be affected by international commercial trade. These species may not be traded internationally for primarily commercial purposes. However, such species may be exported and imported for non-commercial purposes. Examples of species on CITES Appendix I are tigers, Asian elephants, chimpanzees, humpback whales, sun bears, scarlet macaws, sea turtles, Brazilian rosewood, giant tropical pitcher plants, and Asian tropical lady’s slipper orchids.

Appendix II includes those species that, although not necessarily threatened with extinction, may become so unless trade is strictly regulated in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival. Species also may be listed on Appendix II if their parts or products cannot be readily distinguished from those of other species listed on CITES Appendix I or II. International commercial trade in Appendix II species is allowed, but is strictly controlled. Parties may only grant a permit to export such species after it has determined that the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species. Examples of species listed on Appendix II are American black bears, southern fur seals, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, toco toucans, green iguanas, Pacific Coast mahogany, triangle palm, and cyclamens.

Appendix III includes those species that any Party has identified as being subject to regulation of exploitation within its jurisdiction and as needing the cooperation of other Parties to monitor international trade in the species. Such cooperation is achieved primarily by the issuance of export permits by a state which has included the species in Appendix III (these may be granted only if the specimen was not obtained in contravention of the laws of the exporting Party) and by the issuance of certificates of origin by other states that export Appendix III species. Examples of species listed on Appendix III and the countries that listed them are two-toed sloths (Costa Rica), African civets (Botswana), African waxbill (Ghana), and bigleaf mahogany (Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico).


CITES Parties are expected to implement and enforce the treaty’s provisions through domestic legislation. Each Party must establish a CITES Management Authority to issue import and export permits, to monitor trade in CITES species, and to compile annual trade reports, and establish a CITES Scientific Authority to provide scientific expertise on import and export decisions. Fundamental to this approach is the use of precaution in cases of uncertainty: Trade should not be allowed unless there are sufficient information and safeguards to ensure that a species is protected from over-utilization. A CITES export permit for any live specimen of a species listed on any CITES Appendix may be granted only when the Management Authority of the exporting Party is satisfied that the specimen will be prepared and shipped so as to minimize the risk of injury, damage to health, or cruel treatment.

Conference of the Parties (COPs)

The Parties consider and vote on proposals to add or delete species from Appendices I and II at their biennial (or triennial) meetings of the Conference of the Parties (COPs). Parties may unilaterally add species to Appendix III at any time.

CITES COPs also provide an opportunity for Parties to consider and vote on resolutions that interpret the language of the treaty. For example, the Parties have adopted resolutions providing criteria for listing species on the CITES Appendices, a mechanism for reviewing the trade in Appendix II species to ensure that it is not detrimental to the survival of species, and a procedure for approving and registering operations that captive breed or ranch for commercial purposes species listed on CITES Appendix I.

Three CITES Committees—the Standing, Animals, and Plants Committees—each composed of Party representatives from six geographic regions (Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America), are active between COPs.

The Standing Committee provides general policy and operational direction to the Secretariat concerning the implementation of the Convention, drafts resolutions for consideration by the COP, and performs any other functions entrusted to it by the COP. The Standing Committee reports to the COP on the activities it has carried out between the COPs. Committee members are nominated by the COP, and the Committee includes representatives from the depository government (Switzerland), the country that hosted the previous meeting of the COP, and the country that will host the next meeting of the COP. Terms of office expire at the second regular COP after the one at which they were nominated.

The Animals Committee and Plants Committee assist in the development and maintenance of standardized lists of animal and plant species and in the preparation of identification manuals. The Animals Committee and Plants Committee may provide advice on management techniques and procedures, draft resolutions for consideration by the COP, and perform any other functions entrusted to them by the COP or Standing Committee. For example, through the “significant trade process,” the Animals Committee reviews the international commercial trade in species on CITES Appendix II in order to determine if Parties are granting export permits only after determining that the export will not be detrimental to the survival of that species, as required by Article IV of CITES. When this is found not to be the case, the Animals Committee recommends remedial measures that must be taken by the Party concerned, once the measures are approved by the Standing Committee.

Recommended reading

HSI brochure on CITES and the international trade in wild animals [PDF]  English  Español

Favre, David S. 1989. International Trade in Endangered Species: A Guide to CITES. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Boston, USA, 415 pages.

Fitzgerald, Sarah. 1989. International Wildlife Trade: Whose Business Is It? World Wildlife Fund, Washington, USA, 459 pages.

Lyster, Simon. 1985. International Wildlife Law. Grotius Publications, Cambridge, UK, 471 pages.

Wijnstekers, Willem. 1995. The Evolution of CITES. CITES Secretariat, Geneva, Switzerland, 519 pages. 

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