Celebrating Our Partnerships for a #ForeverWild Future

This World Wildlife Day is a chance for JGI to globally recognise the special role CITES has played in regulating international wildlife trade for half a century. We understand that there are as many diverse perspectives on conservation as there are species sharing our planet. We thank the CITES Secretariat, Committees, Parties, NGOs, UN agencies, and representatives of other treaties who have contributed to its evolution. We acknowledge that there are challenges to governing legal and illegal wildlife trade, and understand that long-term demand reduction strategies coupled with community awareness programmes to educate the public about the social, economic, and environmental impacts of trade are essential for the next 50 years of governance. We emphasise the role of community-led conservation, such as through our Tacare model, in working with those communities living with and alongside wildlife in mapping-out solutions in a collaborative and culturally appropriate way.

The last 50 years of CITES has illuminated the challenges in regulating legal trade and combatting wildlife trafficking. To that end, JGIG remains committed to working with our networks, including the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime and the Preventing Pandemics at the Source Coalition. Partnerships are key to understanding and overcoming threats to animals, people, and our shared environment, and while CITES has progressively broadened its approach to regulating legal trade to evoke the language of transnational crime, the Convention remains one grounded in regulating trade, not fighting crime. As an International Champion of End Wildlife Crime, we advocate for the creation of a Protocol under the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) to fill this gap in international law.

Illegal wildlife trade not only undermines the integrity of CITES’ system of legal trade, but deprives governments of revenues, benefits from corruption, and threatens local livelihoods, the survival of species, and the wellbeing of individual animals whose suffering is often overlooked in statistics. CITES has significant scientific, regulatory, and management functions, and it is our hope that a more fit-for-purpose global agreement on wildlife trafficking could reset the legal landscape for future collaborations for years to come.

Find out more below about the history of World Wildlife Day, CITES and what role NGOs have to play.

“No organisation on its own, no country on its own, can effectively stop the illegal wildlife trade that knows no borders. Only through our collective efforts, continued collaboration across borders can we stamp out this cruel and devastating trade, wildlife trafficking. Together we simply must. Otherwise, the effects will be so devastating that entire ecosystems will collapse, and future generations will never know the joy of going out to see some of these extraordinary animals, and trees, and plants in the wild.”

-Dr Jane Goodall DBE[1]

What is World Wildlife Day?

On 20 December 2013, the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 3 March as UN World Wildlife Day. This date was chosen because the Convention of the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was concluded on 3 March 1973, entering into force on 1 July 1975.[2] Membership of the Convention has expanded from the 21 Parties who concluded the treaty to 184 Parties today.

What is CITES?

CITES is a trade agreement that regulates international trade in specimens of species of wild fauna and flora through a licensing system of permits and certificates which can only be issued where certain conditions are met and that must be presented before consignments of specimens can exit or enter a country. Currently, over 38,700 species are regulated under the three Appendices of the Convention where species listed attract different levels of regulation. The current number of species regulated is a massive increase from around 700 in 1981.

CITES aims to ensure that trade in regulated wildlife is legal, traceable, and sustainable towards the ultimate goal that trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

A Brief History of CITES

The first calls for international wildlife trade controls occurred as early as 1911, with the Swiss conservationist Paul Sarasin making the case for restrictions on the import and export of bird feathers. At the time, trends in fashionable feathered headwear were threatening the survival of some bird species. At the Seventh General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1960, governments were urged to restrict the import of animals in accordance with the export regulations of countries of origin. However, gaps in international law and logistical challenges saw little success. A resolution of the Eighth General Assembly of the IUCN held in Nairobi was passed in 1963 calling for ‘an international convention in the regulation of export, transit and import of rare or threatened wildlife species or their skins and trophies.’ Drafts of this ‘Resolution on illegal traffic in species’ were created, negotiated, and revised.

Parties met at the Pentagon in Washington DC from February 12th to March 3rd 1973 to finalise the treaty. As luck would have it, one of the largest cases of illegal wildlife imports in New York’s history was receiving mainstream media coverage in the lead-up to this conference. Known as the Vesely-Forte case, it was reported to have involved ‘half the illegal trade by Americans in the pelts of endangered wild animals’ including leopard, cheetah, and ocelot all illegally exported from Brazil and Mexico. Public interest in Vesely-Forte stoked calls for the international community to respond. 

CITES was one of 75 new international environmental agreements formed in the 1970s following the historic 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the ‘Stockholm Conference’). These agreements affirmed a special responsibility for humankind in safeguarding and managing wildlife and habitat as part of a broader push for sustainable development.

CITES and NGOs

NGOs have played a significant role in the creation and implementation of CITES. The original draft of the Convention had been written by the IUCN Environmental Law Centre in Bonn, and comments from 18 NGOs were integrated into the agreement prior to its signage. NGOs are also involved in meetings of the Conference of the Parties (CoPs). These CoPs are held every two to three years and provide the opportunity for Parties to review and enhance the Convention’s implementation and effectiveness. Parties to CITES vote on decisions at CoPs, while NGOs may be permitted to attend as Observers and be part of negotiations, for example as part of Working Groups or in discussions of a species’ listing on the Appendices.

NGOs have also supported CITES through public education and even in executing demand-reduction efforts in key countries. Experts affiliated with NGOs also have a long history in informing the CITES Secretariat of illegal trade in wildlife from in-field investigations. The late Esmond Bradley Martin’s work on rhino horn markets saw him accompanying the CITES Secretary-General on multiple missions which led to new Parties acceding to the Convention and a more holistic understanding of consumers and trafficking routes.

Some NGOs enjoy more formalised relationships with the CITES Secretariat including IUCN and TRAFFIC who provide joint analyses of proposals to amend to Appendices prior to each CoP. The relationship between CITES and TRAFFIC has an extensive history, with TRAFFIC being founded the year of CITES CoP1 and providing information to the Secretariat and national authorities ever since. The IUCN Species Survival Commission Specialist Groups engage with CITES by providing species assessments and conducting research which may include information on illegal trade activities affecting the species studied.

On the issue of wildlife trafficking, the CITES Secretariat is one of the five founding bodies of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (together with the UNODC, INTERPOL, the World Bank, and World Customs Organization) which aims to provide States and their relevant agencies with the tools, services, technical support and capacity-building they need to establish long term sustainable capacity to respond to wildlife crime. The Consortium was formed to respond to the looming threat of wildlife trafficking accelerated by the involvement of transnational organised crime. The ICCWC is a shining example of interagency cooperation and we encourage our followers to read more here.

The extent of involvement of NGOs under the auspices of CITES and in partnership with CITES was very much ahead of its time in comparison to how the norms of international law-making. Integrating the expertise, resources, and experiences of NGOs on the ground into high-level decision-making facilitates more informed and evidence-based decisions.

This blog draws on material from ‘In plain CITES: an examination of the extent to which the current international regulatory framework addresses illegal wildlife trade towards species conservation’ (Doctoral dissertation, Zara Bending)


[1] Jane Goodall, ‘Day 1 Virtual 31st Meeting of the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group’ (Speech, INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group, 25-27 November 2020).

[2] CITES entered into force on 1 July 1975, this being ninety days after the tenth ratification by a Party as required by Article XXII(1) of the Convention.

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