FAQs about CITES

The inner workings of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora are explained

Humane Society International

What is CITES?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a treaty that governs the international trade in endangered plants and animals. Signing the treaty is voluntary; over 170 nations have signed and ratified CITES to date. The treaty contains three Appendices on which species are placed. When a species is placed on Appendix I, the Parties agree to ban all international commercial trade in that species. When a species is placed on Appendix II, the Parties agree to allow trade in that species only if certain conditions are met. (For instance, before a Party is allowed to export a member of an Appendix II species, it must prove that the export will not be detrimental to wild populations of that species.) A species on Appendix III is one that is protected in at least one country, which has asked other CITES Parties for assistance in controlling the trade.

In addition to listing species on CITES Appendices, the Parties also agree to take other actions to protect species in the international commercial trade. For example, the Parties have agreed to abide by humane standards for air transport of live animals listed on CITES Appendices. Parties control trade in CITES-listed species primarily by issuing export and import permits.

The first meeting of the nations that signed and ratified CITES—the first COP—took place in 1975. The Parties meet every two and a half to three years to propose changes, such as moving a species from one Appendix to another. The upcoming COP, taking place in The Hague, the Netherlands in June 2007, is COP14.

Who administers CITES?

The CITES Secretariat, based in Geneva, is responsible for administering the treaty. The Secretariat itself is administered by the United Nations Environmental Program.

How is CITES enforced?

The CITES Secretariat does not enforce the treaty. Instead, each Party has adopted so-called CITES implementing legislation—national laws that allow the Party to implement and enforce the treaty. In the United States, CITES is implemented and enforced primarily through the Endangered Species Act.

Because international wildlife trade often involves more than one country, Parties often cooperate with one another to track illegal trade and catch poachers; they may also work with the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol). The CITES Secretariat conducts training workshops to help Parties implement the treaty.

How do species get on a CITES appendix?

At each COP, Parties submit proposals to list species on the Appendices, remove species from the Appendices, or transfer species from one Appendix to another. Fifty-four species proposals will be considered at COP12.

Species proposals are discussed and either passed or defeated by consensus or voted upon. Each Party gets one vote. It takes two-thirds of the Parties present and voting to pass a species proposal.

Parties may request a secret ballot to vote on proposals; this often happens on proposals that are highly controversial. Secret ballots prevent others from knowing how a delegate from a Party has voted; secret ballots allow a delegate to cast a vote but not be held accountable to his or her government or the people he or she represents.

Currently, it takes only eleven Parties to support a proposal to hold a secret ballot. Chile has proposed to increase that number to one-third of the Parties present and voting (approximately 50 Parties); this would make it more difficult to conduct secret ballots, thus ensuring greater accountability and transparency.

What happens at a COP?

Delegates from the Parties discuss and vote on various proposals and resolutions submitted by Parties and by the Secretariat. Many people participate in COPs: Party delegates, representatives from the CITES Secretariat, the administrators of other United Nations organizations and treaties, the international press, and observers.

Are other matters discussed at COPs?

CITES Parties and the Secretariat produce other documents to be discussed at COPs. These documents may be resolutions to change the rules of procedure, to change the status of observers, to set up working groups, to define the relationship between CITES and other international treaties, etc. Approximately 50 such documents will be discussed at COP12. These documents are discussed, modified, and either passed or defeated by consensus, or voted upon in the same manner as species proposals.

How do non-governmental organizations, such as The HSUS and HSI, participate in CITES meetings?

Non-governmental organizations participate as observers. An observer is any organization that has an interest in the treaty: animal protection, conservation or environmental organizations; scientific and technical organizations; or animal industry organizations (such as those involved in the ivory trade or pet trade). The CITES treaty gives any observer the right to participate in a COP unless one-third of the Parties object. This right was granted to observers to ensure that COPs would be held in an open, transparent, and participatory manner. Although some countries (particularly Japan) have objected to the participation of individual observers, the objections have never received the necessary number of votes to exclude an observer.

Although they may not vote, observers participate in several ways. Their main goal is to influence the ways that delegates vote or otherwise act regarding issues. Observers read the species proposals and other documents and prepare fact sheets and documents in which they make recommendations. They also participate directly in COP discussions and make formal or informal presentations.

What happens between COPs?

Three permanent CITES Committees continue to meet, once or twice a year, to carry on business and to prepare for the next COP. The Standing Committee is the governing body of CITES between the COPs. It is composed of 17 individuals, each representing one of the six CITES regions (Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean), the previous COP host country, the next COP host country, and Switzerland, which is where the treaty resides. The Standing Committee meets twice a year to discuss general issues such as implementation and enforcement. The Standing Committee presents a report of its activities at the next COP. The CITES Animals and Plants Committees are technical bodies that meet annually to consider issues related to particular plants or animals. Each Committee is composed of ten individuals, each elected to represent the six CITES regions. The Committees report to the Standing Committee or to the next COP.