The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), also less commonly known as the Washington Convention, was adopted in Washington DC, USA, in March 1973 and entered into force in July 1975.
CITES aims to ensure that no species of wild animal or plant becomes or remains subject to unsustainable exploitation because of international trade. Today, CITES affords varying degrees of protection to over 35,000 species of animals and plants, whether they are traded as live or dead specimens, parts (such as tusks or leather) or derivatives (such as medicines). Species are listed in one of the three Appendices of CITES according to the level of protection or regulation of trade that they are considered to require. The member countries, known as Parties to CITES, must designate a Management Authority which issues import and export permits for CITES-listed species, based on advice from one or more Scientific Authorities. For many years CITES has been among the conservation agreements with the largest membership. As of 31 March 2019, there were 183 Contracting Parties to the Convention.
Annually, international wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars and to include millions of individual plant and animal specimens. A recent JNCC report, UK Wildlife Trade Report: An Analysis of Trade in CITES Specimens (2012-16), estimated the minimum value of UK imports of CITES-listed species for commercial trade was £525 million for animals and £1.18 million for plants. Globally the value of wildlife products, timber, fish products and medicinal plants is worth billions of pounds.
Estimating the scale of illegal international wildlife trade is more difficult. However, what is clear, is that the value of the global illegal wildlife trade also runs into billions of pounds; its environmental costs, in terms of the negative impacts on endangered species, are immeasurable. Levels of exploitation of some animal and plant species are high and the trade in them, together with other factors, such as habitat loss, is capable of heavily depleting their populations and even bringing some species close to extinction.
Many wildlife species in trade are not 'endangered', but to ensure the sustainability of trade in them the existence of an agreement is important to conserve these resources for the future. Under the terms of CITES, international trade in a species listed in one of its Appendices is only permitted if this is not detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild. Since the trade in wild animals and plants crosses national borders, the effort to regulate it and protect certain species from over-exploitation requires international co-operation.
The text of the Convention provides the broad legal framework for the regulation of international trade. Parties to CITES are all required to adopt their own domestic legislation to implement the provisions of the Convention and associated Resolutions; they are also required to enact national legislation to enable confiscation of illegal specimens, to levy penalties for illegal trade and to appoint Management and Scientific Authorities.
CITES is implemented in the EU through a set of Regulations known as the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations (338/97 and 865/06 as amended). These two regulations constitute the legal framework for all EU governments and regulate international and internal trade in wild animals and plants in the EU. The Regulations implement CITES in a stricter manner than is required by the Convention. For example, certain non-CITES species are included and certain CITES-listed species are afforded greater protection, and they also contain provisions to prohibit or restrict imports of species which are considered to be a threat to native EC fauna and flora.
Implementation in the UK
The UK ratified CITES in August 1976. The Endangered Species (Import & Export) Act 1976 was the first piece of legislation to give effect to CITES but was largely superseded by the European Wildlife Trade Regulations The UK will continue to be a Party to CITES after leaving the EU and will use the powers under the Withdrawal Act to bring the current EU Wildlife Trade Regulations into UK law.
The CITES Management Authorities for the UK are the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its executive agency Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), which is responsible for the issue of permits and certificates for the imports, exports and commercial use of endangered species, JNCC is appointed by the Secretary of State (Defra) as the UK's CITES Scientific Authority for animals, and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew is the Scientific Authority for plants.
Enforcement is the responsibility of HM Revenue and Customs, the UK Border Force and the police. The Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 (CEMA) concerns the illegal import and export of goods, including CITES specimens. The Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997 (COTES) make provision for enforcement once specimens have entered the UK of the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations, and the subsequent transposed UK legislation (when necessary).
JNCC contributes to the development of Government policy on endangered species of wild fauna and flora by providing sound scientific advice, as well as advising Government on licence applications (c. 20,000 p.a.) for CITES-listed species. We also participate in delegations to international meetings, as well as assisting Government with harmonisation of CITES procedures worldwide.
JNCC also co-ordinates and chairs the Wildlife Crime Conservation Advisory Group (WCCAG) (formerly known as the Wildlife Law Enforcement Working Group), which is an informal advisory body to the UK Wildlife Crime Tasking and Coordinating Group.