Aquarium Fish

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

posted: 05/15/12

When researching or purchasing some fish, birds, and other "exotic" animals, one may run across a reference to CITES and wonder what it means. The following information should be helpful in understanding just what CITES is and why it is important.

What is CITES?

CITES is the acronym for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES, which became enforceable in 1975, is an international agreement between governments of 155 nations or states (as of Sept., 2001) referred to as Parties. The CITES members are committed to working together to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. A complete list of all Parties can be found on the CITES web site at

What is the mission of CITES?

The mission of CITES is to protect, preserve, and regulate the trade of our environmental commodities through a global effort of monitoring, evaluation, and regulation. According to CITES, "Because the trade in wild animals and plants crosses borders between countries, the effort to regulate it requires international cooperation to safeguard certain species from over-exploitation. CITES was conceived in the spirit of such cooperation." The initiatives of CITES have the support of each member's government, ensuring cooperation, global learning, and ultimately, preservation of thousands of species. Today, it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 30,000 species of animals and plants, whether they are traded as live specimens, fur coats, or dried herbs.

Illegal trade of plants and animals accounts for billions of dollars — second only to illegal trade in narcotics — and represents a dollar value that has no limits in lost opportunities of education, tourism, research, and observation. Without an international convention, illegal trade would eventually destroy what it seeks to exploit.

How are species categorized?

CITES has developed three Appendices, which are three distinct lists of those animals and plants deemed endangered, threatened, or in need of monitoring. In total, these Appendices include approximately 5,000 species of animals and 25,000 species of plants. Many wildlife species in trade are not endangered, but the existence of an agreement to ensure the sustainability of the trade is important in order to safeguard these resources for the future.

Appendix I

Includes those species threatened with extinction and prohibits trade of these species except under strictly defined exceptional purposes.

Appendix II

Includes those species that may become threatened or endangered without regulation and strict trade protocols. Species are obtained only by permit based on wild population estimates.

Appendix III

Includes those species currently regulated within a Party's boundaries but requires global cooperative efforts to prevent becoming a candidate for Appendix I or II.

Wild flora and fauna continually undergo scrutiny by CITES and, every year, proposals to modify the status of certain species, include new species, and define distinctions are reviewed and acted upon.

How is CITES structured?

CITES is arranged much like a non-profit organization with six divisions. Those are, in hierarchical order:

The Conference of the Parties

The member states (or countries) are collectively referred to as the Conference of the Parties and are akin to a board of directors. Meeting every two to three years, the Conference reviews articles under consideration by the Convention. This includes status review of the species included in the Appendices, consideration of proposals to amend Appendices I and II, and review of reports from the Secretariat or other Committees. These meetings also support the important informal internal discussion among Parties, exchanging views about problem solving, celebrating success, and solidifying relationships.

The Secretariat

Pivotal to the functioning of the Convention, the Secretariat performs a variety of essential roles. Located in Geneva, Switzerland, the Secretariat is administered by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). The Secretariat receives and disseminates to the Parties, reports, sample permits, proposals for Appendix amendments, enforcement and legislative issues, and news of any new Parties. New editions of the Appendices are issued through the Secretariat, and it prepares the Annual Report. It may undertake, under agreed programs, occasional scientific and technical studies.

The Standing Committee

Members include representatives of the Parties from 6 regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and the larger area comprised of Central and South America and the Caribbean. As well, there is a representative from the Depository Government in Switzerland and from the representative hosts of the previous and upcoming meetings of the Conference. Its key roles are to provide policy guidance to the Secretariat concerning the Convention, and oversee the management of the Secretariat's budget. The Standing Committee coordinates and oversees the work of other committees and groups and makes policy suggestions, such as deciding whether to adopt formal monitoring systems directed at reducing illegal trade of a given species.

The Animal Committee and Plant Committee

Meeting once a year, members of the Animal Committee and the Plant Committee provide the technical support required to make decisions about which species to include in the Appendices. This includes review of current trade practices and numbers. Members to this Committee are elected from the same regions represented in the Standing Committee. Included in their list of tasks is the preparation of directories for each of the six CITES regions, and listing the botanists and zoologists who are experts in those species included in the Appendices.

How is CITES structured? (continued)

Nomenclature Committee

The international nature of the Convention brings with it confusions in references and semantics. For this reason, the Nomenclature Committee was formed to obviate these issues and establish standardized nomenclature used in the Appendices and in other CITES documents. This includes recommending taxonomic names, both new and updated, while ensuring the correct reference according to established zoological and botanical nomenclature. Membership is voluntary and includes one zoologist and one botanist appointed by the Conference.

How is CITES funded?

Traditionally, members of the Convention have supplied funding to administer the CITES programs. As membership has grown and the scope and inclusions of the Convention have increased, supplementary funding has become a necessity. This comes from a wide variety of sources, including international organizations, individual governments, and the private sector. Additional funding is always needed for programs such as public education, technical and enforcement training for member countries, field studies, and monitoring.

More on
Aquarium Fish