International Convention Protects Endangered Species

Recognizing that certain species were being exploited and required protection from extensive exportation, member nations signed a convention establishing uniform criteria for regulating the flow of selected wildlife across borders.

Summary of Event

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was signed in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1973. The meeting, held in a large U.S. State Department auditorium, is often referred to as the “Washington Convention.” While a treaty is an arrangement between two countries, a convention can be described as an agreement among many nations. CITES, the major international wildlife protection convention, became effective after the tenth country signed the agreement. Countries that join by way of approving, ratifying, or otherwise accepting CITES are called signatories or parties to the convention. When a new country agrees to CITES, the provisions go into effect for that country ninety days after it ratifies the convention. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1973)
Endangered species;international conventions
Wildlife conservation
Environmental policy, international;endangered species
[kw]International Convention Protects Endangered Species (Mar. 3, 1973)
[kw]Convention Protects Endangered Species, International (Mar. 3, 1973)
[kw]Endangered Species, International Convention Protects (Mar. 3, 1973)
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1973)
Endangered species;international conventions
Wildlife conservation
Environmental policy, international;endangered species
[g]North America;Mar. 3, 1973: International Convention Protects Endangered Species[01100]
[g]United States;Mar. 3, 1973: International Convention Protects Endangered Species[01100]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 3, 1973: International Convention Protects Endangered Species[01100]
[c]Animals and endangered species;Mar. 3, 1973: International Convention Protects Endangered Species[01100]
Reed, Nathaniel P.
Greenwalt, Lynn A.

The convention is composed of twenty-five articles, which provide a classification of threatened animals and plants, primarily of species subject to heavy trade, and which regulate trade through a system of permits and certificates. Both animals and plants are listed in the convention, although vertebrate animals constitute the bulk of listed organisms. Whole species, subspecies, or geographically isolated populations can all be listed for international regulation. Both living and dead organisms, and parts and products derived from them, are controlled. Trade refers to any import or export of a listed plant or animal across national borders, as well as the procurement of organisms from the marine environment beyond national boundaries. Activities that are carried out within a nation’s borders are not addressed by CITES, but some governments may take CITES into consideration in writing environmental laws in their own jurisdictions.

The convention maintains three major lists, referred to as appendixes 1, 2, and 3, that define the extent of permit and certificate regulation required for particular species. Appendix 1 species are determined to be threatened with extinction. Commercial activities are tightly controlled for these animals and plants. Appendix 2 species are not immediately threatened with extinction but, unless trade is tightly regulated, may become threatened. CITES may permit some commercial activity with these species. Appendix 3 includes those species that have been proposed for regulation for conservation purposes, usually by a signatory country, in order to enforce that country’s internal control of that species.

Although Appendix 1 species are determined to be threatened with extinction, permits can be issued for their export if the scientific authority for the exporting nation attests that this case of export will not harm the survival of the species, the shipment poses no harm to the specimens, the purpose of the export is not commercial, and the recipient can care appropriately for the specimens.

Although Appendix 2 species are not currently threatened with extinction, permits are nearly as difficult to secure. As with Appendix 1 species, the management authority must be assured that the specimens were taken in accordance with local laws, and the exporting nation must confirm that this export will not harm the survival of the species. The volume of export of appendix 2 species is monitored, and if such activities appear likely to depress the species’ population to the point of being threatened in any part of its range—resulting in eligibility for inclusion as an appendix 1 species—then export is more strictly limited.

Appendix 3 species are listed because they are primarily of concern to particular countries. Control of trade in these species focuses on confirming that export of those species from those countries has secured the appropriate permits from those countries and that the specimens are at minimal risk in the shipment process.

The mechanism for adding species to and deleting them from the appendixes is a crucial process, involving not only scientific but also political and economic factors. International Conferences of the Parties are held regularly, and listings are changed in a process of amending appendixes 1 and 2. Proposed additions and deletions are submitted to the CITES secretariat at least 150 days before a conference, allowing time for official consultation among the CITES parties and the issuance of an official response 30 days before the conference convenes. Changes in listings require that an amendment be adopted by two-thirds of the CITES parties present and voting at the conference. Approved changes go into effect 90 days after adoption.

Appendix 3 species do not have to undergo this approval process, since listing in this appendix serves to trigger an awareness among the world community that a particular country is regulating a particular species or population. Therefore, any signatory nation may submit a list of its protected species to the CITES secretariat, including a copy of the local laws and regulations that will be enforced by that nation. The list automatically becomes part of appendix 3 after 90 days. A country may likewise withdraw its species from appendix 3, an act that takes effect 30 days after official notification.

While the regular schedule of conferences can manage routine additions to and deletions from the appendixes, there is provision for amendments to be made and adopted via mail between conferences. There is also provision for “extraordinary meetings,” which may be called upon receipt of requests from one-third of the party countries.

States party are bound to enforce the provisions of the current convention and prohibit trade that is in violation of the convention. States party are required to assess penalties for illegal possession and/or trade in listed species. Confiscated specimens are usually held by the management authority and, after appropriate consultation with the country of origin, are returned if appropriate. The management authorities in each country must maintain records of exporters and importers and the numbers and kinds of permits issued. These reports are filed with the secretariat on a regular basis.

Each CITES country must designate a management authority to issue permits and certificates. In addition, each CITES country must have a scientific authority that determines if a particular use or activity will threaten the survival of a listed species in the wild. The scientific authority must often establish the scientific basis for permit approval. In the United States, both the management and the scientific authorities are within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. The Federal Wildlife Permit Office is the management authority, and the Office of the Scientific Authority is the scientific authority.

In actual operation, the system requires two permits per shipment. Generally, it is necessary to first secure an import permit from the country an animal or plant is going to enter. Then the exporting country will grant (if appropriate) an export permit to allow the wildlife specimen to leave the country.

Convention certificates are available for organisms, parts, and products that were acquired before they were listed by CITES. Animals bred in captivity are also exempt from CITES, but must possess a certificate of exemption to pass through borders. Animal species in appendix 1 that are bred in captivity for commercial purposes are treated as appendix 2 species and require a separate permit for each shipment. Parallel provisions are also made for plants that are artificially propagated, but the breeding or propagation should not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.

Some exporters have a legitimate need to ship continually the same wildlife. To avoid the problem of repetitive applications for an ongoing legitimate enterprise, the Federal Wildlife Permit Office issues a letter of authorization allowing permits for multiple shipments.

If a dispute arises between two parties to the convention concerning the implementation or interpretation of the provisions of the convention, the problem must be negotiated between the parties or be submitted to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

The CITES secretariat is provided by the executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, and related agencies of the United Nations may participate in the meetings but may not vote. International agencies, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with technical qualifications for protecting wildlife, may also participate in a nonvoting role. Conference meetings are scheduled to convene at least once every two years. The number of parties to CITES varies as much by the political state of the world as by the growing tendency of countries to be involved in environmental concerns. In June, 1985, there were eighty-nine CITES member countries; by 1994, the number had increased to 124, and by 2006 to more than 150.


CITES serves primarily as a record-keeping system for the documentation of traffic for the more threatened animals and plants. Parties agreeing to the convention accept this system of international cooperation in order to reduce the international overexploitation of their more endangered organisms. By working together, convention members hope to lower the pressure on their own wildlife; therefore, as with most successful treaties, the basis of cooperation in CITES is actually self-interest.

Countries agreeing to CITES are free to enact and enforce stricter regulations for wildlife. Party countries can also enter a reservation regarding any species listed in appendix 1, 2, or 3, or any specimen parts. In such cases, the country is treated as a nonparty country in respect to that particular species only.

The establishment of standardized listings for wildlife simplifies the myriad provincial listings available beyond or before the establishment of CITES. For example, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) had established the Red Data Books, which classified vertebrates as endangered, vulnerable, rare, indeterminate, insufficiently known, out of danger, and of special concern. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 established the levels of endangered and threatened species in the United States. Individual states have generally recognized the ESA classification and have added “species in need of conservation” (SINC) as a third classification. There is a rough equivalency between lists: An organism that was listed as endangered or vulnerable in the Red Data Books is often in CITES appendix 1 and listed as endangered under the ESA.

Scientists and museums encounter considerably more paperwork and some expense as a result of CITES, although generally, research activities can continue with listed species. Scientific exchange of museum specimens and even live plant materials is common and necessary in many areas of research. Provisions are made for this exchange to continue for noncommercial cases involving legally accessioned specimens. Exchanges are allowed between scientists and institutions registered with the CITES secretariat. Such registration involves a registration fee.

CITES permits are not required if a listed organism is being transported through the United States in such a manner that it remains in the custody of U.S. Customs. If the species is listed under the Endangered Species Act or the Marine Mammal Protection Act, however, such transports are in violation of those laws. Some countries do not enforce CITES for animals and plants accompanying personal baggage and household effects.

While CITES may appear to deal simply with endangered organisms, it also serves a role in regulation of legitimate trade in which oversight of resources needs to be monitored. For example, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is in high demand in Asia and varies in its availability in various U.S. states. CITES does not regulate ginseng activity that remains within U.S. borders. Ginseng can be exported from the United States, however, only through designated ports, at which point CITES comes into effect. At those points, port inspectors with the Division of Plant Protection and Quarantine will sign and stamp the federal export permit and validate the export report only when the proper state documents include a State Certificate of Legal Take.

The CITES operation has become an informal standard for customs agencies; documentation similar to CITES permits is now routinely required for shipments from nonparty countries. In such cases, the port officials expect documentation from a nature conservation authority designated by the country, and expect the same information to be provided that is required in CITES documentation.

CITES is viewed differently by various organizations. Both environmental and animal-rights organizations tend to perceive CITES as the worldwide mechanism to prevent the extinction of threatened plant and animal species. Commercial interests often view CITES as one of many impediments to necessary commerce. In day-to-day function, CITES serves to monitor the international flow of selected plants and animals and provides a mechanism to influence the activities of political agencies that regulate this flow. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1973)
Endangered species;international conventions
Wildlife conservation
Environmental policy, international;endangered species

Further Reading

  • Adams, Douglas, and Mark Carwardine. Last Chance to See. New York: Harmony House, 1991. A poignant but often amusing look at the world’s most threatened species. Excellent color photographs.
  • Estes, Carol, and Keith W. Sessions. Controlled Wildlife: Federal Permit Procedures. Lawrence, Kans.: Association of Systematics Collections, 1983-1985. Provides flow chart on procedures that must be followed to meet CITES requirements and lists the various CITES permit-issuing agencies around the world.
  • Faure, David S. International Trade in Endangered Species: A Guide to CITES. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1989. Gives the texts of CITES and subsequent endangered-species resolutions. Discusses each CITES article and contains appendixes listing animals covered by and countries signatory to the agreement.
  • Fitzgerald, Sarah. International Wildlife Trade: Whose Business Is It? Washington, D.C.: World Wildlife Fund, 1989. An overview of the world wildlife trade. Useful background for an understanding of CITES.
  • Nilsson, Greta. The Endangered Species Handbook. Washington, D.C.: The Animal Welfare Institute, 1983. This booklet provides one of the most accessible texts of CITES available. Reflects a nonscientific animal-rights perspective.
  • Wijnstekers, Willem. The Evolution of CITES 2003: A Reference to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. 7th ed. Châtelaine-Geneva, Switzerland: CITES Secretariat, 2003. Presents provisions from the convention in an accessible style and provides explanations and comments.

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