• Olivia Earth

CITES deconstructed

Attending your first CITES event can be daunting. There is so much you have to wrap your head around and so many decisions that you can’t be neutral on. So, how does CITES work? Who monitors the law enforcement? And, how can the general public get involved?

This year CITES CoP17 was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the biggest recorded CoP for CITES bringing in over 3000 people from all around the world.

Simply, CITES (Convention on international trade in endangered species of wild flora and fauna) is an international agreement between governments which has the cooperation of more than 180 countries. CITES aims to tighten up (or loosen) the international trade laws in endangered/threatened species to help reduce the risk of population decrease and/or extinction due to unsustainable trade.

CITES uses an appendix system through which they rank animals to determine to what extent they should be protected from trade. However these appendices don’t only determine trade laws but in some cases it will also include hunting quotas or complete abstinence. Listing an animal on an appendix, or uplisting them to a more regulated appendix relies on both biological criteria and a 2/3rds majority vote of all countries involved in CITES.

This starts to get complicated, for example, when South Africa was asked to vote on the issue of polar bear uplisting, an animal that seems almost mythical it is so foreign to us. When I first tried to understand the system I was confused as to why any animal should/would be left off of appendix 1.

Let’s look at the case of the proposed polar bear uplistment for further clarity. To start, there are around 25000 polar bears whereas appendix one regulations say that to be listed there must be fewer than 5000 individuals of the species left (I’ll admit, I am not sure if that includes captive animals). And the second thing that I came to understand is that if polar bears were included on appendix 1 then the local Inuit communities, especially in Canada, would not be able to continue polar bear subsistence hunting and selling the furs internationally. These Inuit communities only contribute to a 2% decline in the polar bear population per year, whereas reduced habitat for the bears is a bigger threat. The real issue here seems to be a climate change issue and not a CITES issue – it is very important to distinguish between the two. As it is, the proposal to uplist the bears has been declined for the last three years and wasn’t even presented at this year’s CITES CoP.


(Photo reference)

I wonder how Canada voted on the South African/African issues of international trade in rhino horn or lion bones? I wonder how we, South Africa, voted on the polar bear proposal.

To conclude, it is the responsibility of all governments involved in CITES to enforce strict boarder and custom controls in their own countries. Inability to uphold the regulations can lead to a suspension in CITES or an expulsion.

Read My CITES Experience to learn more about the actual event!

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