CITES: A "Rookie" Perspective
An Animal Rights Article from


Helen Thirlway, from International Primate Protection League (IPPL)
May 2010

Having referred to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) on many occasions in my work, it was fascinating to observe, and, to a certain extent take part in, the decision-making process for changes to the treaty.

One of the first things I realized was that, although most individuals from NGOs find their initial instincts pointing them to the Committee I meetings, in which species proposals are discussed, we cannot ignore Committee II, which focuses on agenda items such as procedural issues, enforcement matters, and the interpretation of terms used in the treaty. Many of the changes made in these committee meetings can also have dramatic implications.

To give one of many examples at this meeting, within “Document 17: Incentives for the Implementation of the Convention,” one of the proposed incentives was “certification,” meaning that the CITES permitting system would become “a fully-recognized regulatory and branding-type certification scheme.” As well as being a huge undertaking that would substantially drain CITES financial and human resources, this would have alarming implications. By initiating an accreditation scheme, CITES would be actively endorsing commercial wildlife trade, which is inappropriate for a treaty set up to regulate that trade. Many illegal smuggling operations use legal trade as a cover, so the likely result would be that CITES would at some point “accredit” an individual or organization involved in illegal trafficking.

I was surprised that, though a number of parties did not support this proposal, they argued against it on the basis that it was not a priority, and the existing budgetary constraints and work volume of the Secretariat made it inadvisable. Very few seemed mindful of the wider implications. However, Israel’s pro-conservation delegation was well aware and strongly opposed, saying that “the Convention exists to regulate trade and not to certify commercial wildlife traders,” at which I was tempted to shout “Hear, hear!”

Despite the many frustrations of this treaty, which has now been dubbed by some conservationists as the “Convention to Increase Trade in Endangered Species,” we cannot give up and let the trade lobbyists win; we have to keep fighting both at the Conference itself, and also out there on the ground. It is easy to get tied up in getting the legislation in place, while forgetting that this activity is purely academic if it’s not properly enforced. Only by tackling it on both fronts can we hope to halt the decimation of the earth’s wildlife at human hands.

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