CITES Standing Committee: Everything you need to know

As Born Free calls for tighter restrictions on international wildlife trade when regulatory body, CITES, meets in Geneva, we look at why CITES is important and how Born Free is involved.

An elephant calf in the dense shrubland


In November last year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) held its triennial Conference of the Parties in Panama.

Born Free’s summary of the outcomes of that meeting highlighted the importance of the measures agreed, as a raft of tree species, amphibians, reptiles, sharks and birds were brought under the protection of CITES for the first time, or had their existing protection status improved. Other measures included ratchetting up efforts to prevent the devastating trafficking of pangolins and cheetah cubs, increasing awareness and limiting the impacts of trade in live wild animals, and considering the potential role that CITES can play in reducing the risk of future pandemics.

What is the CITES Standing Committee?

Between each Conference of Parties (involving around 2,000 delegates), the CITES Standing Committee meets annually, and broadly oversees the implementation of the Convention, based on the instructions provided by the Conference of the Parties.

From 6-10 November 2023, Born Free will be attending the 77th CITES Standing Committee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. At that meeting, we’ll be working with our colleagues from across the world as part of the Species Survival Network, of which we’re a founding member, to try to influence the outcomes on a whole range of issues including, among others: the role of CITES in reducing the risk of future pandemics; the role of indigenous peoples and local communities in CITES decision-making; trade in captive-bred CITES species; trade in live wild-caught elephants; trade in big cats, rhinos and great apes; the rules around transport of live animals; and compliance processes for Parties that may be breaking the rules.

Why is CITES important?

CITES has many critics. It is, after all, primarily an international trade agreement, designed to facilitate trade in threatened species in a regulated way. It’s not a criminal justice agreement, nor is it an animal welfare agreement, albeit it has implications for both. It only regulates cross-border trade in the 41,000-odd species listed on its appendices (roughly 6,600 species of animals and 34,300 species of plants) and has no jurisdiction at a domestic level. Since its measures are negotiated and agreed by national government delegates, those decision-making processes are fundamentally political in nature, and the degree to which they are effectively implemented and enforced varies enormously.

Nevertheless, CITES is the only international agreement designed exclusively to regulate wildlife trade, which it does by trying to ensure the legality, sustainability and traceability of any international trade transaction involving the species it covers. Some 184 countries, comprising almost all the world’s governments, are signed up as ‘Parties’, and are legally committed to implementing the Convention through their own national legislation. There are also potential penalties for Parties that fail to adhere to the Convention, in the form of trade sanctions and even trade suspensions.

Born Free’s involvement with CITES

Born Free has been involved in CITES since the late 1980s, when our co-founder and Executive President, Will Travers OBE, travelled to Lausanne in SwitzNicky Campbell with an elephant placarderland to present a 610,000-name petition that helped secure the ban on international commercial trade in elephant ivory. Over the years, our achievements have included helping to secure the global ban on international commercial trade in pangolins, restrictions on trade in African lion parts, the regulation of trade in giraffes, and the current moratorium on trade in live, wild-caught African elephants to zoos and other captive facilities, among many others.

We’ve particularly focussed on implementation and compliance, and on strengthening restrictions on international trade in live animals. This has become even more urgent in the wake of Covid-19, and the need to improve the welfare of wild animals in trade to help reduce future pandemic risk.

The discussions and negotiations that take place at these meetings can be quite technical in nature, may seem to take forever, and we don’t always achieve the outcomes we would like to see. Nevertheless, Born Free will continue to fight for greater protection for wildlife from rampant exploitation, and advocating for greater support to strengthen the effectiveness of CITES provisions is a vitally important part of that process.

In the final analysis, CITES is far from perfect, but the world’s wildlife would be much worse off without it.

For the latest developments from the CITES Standing Committee, follow Born Free on Twitter – @BornFreeFDN, and check back on our news page for a full summary after the event.