CITES @ 50: A cause for celebration?

03 March 2023


Fifty years ago today, the text of a hugely significant international agreement on wildlife trade was agreed by 80 countries in Washington DC. But, asks our Editor Celia Nicholls, is this anniversary really a happy birthday?

Today, Born Free is celebrating World Wildlife Day, an international day created by the United Nations to raise awareness of our planet’s diverse and beautiful wild animals and plants.

The date was chosen because the text of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, was agreed on 3 March 1973. So, this year is special – CITES is 50 years old.

CITES regulates international trade of more than 38,000 species of wild animals and plants, seeking to ensure commercial trade does not threaten their survival. The Convention currently has 184 members or ‘Parties’, representing most of the world’s governments. Born Free has been involved in CITES since 1989, when – horrified by the brutal slaughter of elephants for their tusks – we helped secure an international ivory trade ban.

Why is a wildlife charity committed to protecting wild animals from exploitation, involved in a treaty focussed on trade? The international trade in wildlife – including live animals and plants, and parts and products derived from them – is estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of pounds annually, and represents a huge threat to animal welfare, conservation and our planet’s biodiversity. Countless species are heavily exploited, with both legal and illegal trade causing atrocious suffering and pushing many species towards extinction – compounded by climate change and habitat loss.

Millions of animals – the likes of elephants, lions, rhinos, tigers and pangolins – are killed and butchered every year so their body parts can be legally or illegally traded. Millions more – such as cheetahs, reptiles, parrots and monkeys – are captured from the wild and traded, or smuggled live to be exotic pets, or used in zoos or laboratories.

Every three years, CITES has a two-week-long meeting called the Conference of Parties (CoP), pro-trade lobbyists exert immense pressure to perpetuate the legal hunting, killing, and trade of wild animals and plants. Born Free attends CoP as an ‘Observer’ organisation providing a strong voice for wildlife and, together with our colleagues in the Species Survival Network (SSN), we advocate for the highest possible protection for at-risk species and for the strict enforcement of CITES regulations.

Born Free helped establish the Species Survival Network (SSN) in 1993 and it is now the leading coalition of wildlife organisations working within the CITES framework to reduce the impact of the international wildlife trade. Today, SSN has 86 members from across the world, and our Executive President, Will Travers OBE, is its President.

With this year’s World Wildlife Day theme being ‘Partnerships for Wildlife Conservation’, SSN’s joint mission is more crucial than ever before. CITES is vitally important and has played a key role in helping protect many species from the worst excesses of international trade – the natural world would undoubtedly be in a worse state without it. Nevertheless, this is a time of crisis for nature. Born Free believes much, much more needs to be done.

Born Free have joined an array of conservation companies and charities fighting biodiversity loss as cosignatures of a letter addressed to CITES parties, outling the value of CITES, but addressing its need to go further to sufficiently protect species.

Born Free’s Head of Policy, Dr Mark Jones, said: “The crisis facing the world’s wildlife is unprecedented, and the trade in and trafficking of wild animals, plants, and parts and products derived from them, is a huge part of the problem.

“Born Free has been advocating for increased protection for wildlife under CITES for decades. While we have achieved much over the years, never has the need for greater action to curb the trade in wildlife been more urgent.”

With your support, Born Free will continue to work tirelessly towards this goal.

In November 2022 Born Free attended the 19th CoP in Panama, where we did everything we could to protect wildlife, together with our SSN colleagues. But, did the meeting deliver for wildlife?