Global wildlife trade regulator reprimands UK and EU for failures to uphold captive breeding rules

The global body that regulates international wildlife trade has officially reprimanded the United Kingdom and the European Union for their longstanding failure to register captive breeding facilities for the most heavily threatened and protected species.

A grey parrot in a cage

© J McArthur, BFF

The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which 183 countries are registered Parties, held its 77th Standing Committee meeting from 6-10 November in Geneva. The Standing Committee, which oversees the implementation of the Convention based on instructions provided by its triennial Conference of the Parties, had a packed agenda to consider. Close to 1,000 delegates, including representatives from almost 100 governments and many observer organisations, including Born Free, attended the meeting. 


International trade for primarily commercial purposes in species listed in CITES Appendix I (species threated with extinction) is prohibited. However, the rules are more relaxed for animals of those same species that are bred in captivity, provided the breeding facilities are properly registered and managed according to agreed CITES processes, designed to ensure any capture of wild animals for breeding stock or subsequent trade does not further threaten wild populations. The EU and UK have failed to register such facilities for many years.

Investigations by the CITES Secretariat raised serious questions about whether breeding stock in European captive breeding facilities had been legally acquired and whether exports from such facilities were primarily commercial in nature, particularly in relation to rare parrots bred in Germany, and reptiles bred in Spain. CITES has urged the EU and the UK to put in place measures to ensure such facilities are properly registered in future, and for all countries to reject exports from unregistered facilities.

The meeting also recommended that all commercial trade in CITES-listed species from Lao PDR be suspended following years of non-compliance, and noted that the CITES Secretariat is investigating the source of breeding stock for long tailed macaques on breeding farms in the country, an issue that Born Free has been raising for years. The timber trade to and from Vietnam, trade in live animals to India, and trade in live birds from Suriname, also came under scrutiny, and the Standing Committee agreed to maintain suspensions on grey parrot trade from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as African Rosewood trade from several countries.

Mexico’s efforts to address the illegal fishing for totoaba, the swim bladders from which are highly prized in the Far East, were also discussed, alongside the impacts of illegal totoaba fishing on the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. Mexico will be required to report on its efforts to the next Standing Committee meeting in early 2025, along with the United States and China, both of which are implicated in the trade.

The role of CITES in reducing future pandemic risk 

Born Free led calls for CITES to recognise and act upon its role as the global wildlife trade regulator to minimise future pandemic risks from wildlife trading, by incorporating pathogen spillover prevention at source into its considerations, adopting a highly precautionary approach to high-risk wildlife trading practices, and by transitioning people who currently rely on such practices towards alternative livelihoods. In the event, the Committee did not adopt our recommendations directly, although we will continue to have opportunities to push for urgent action on reducing pandemic risks from wildlife trade through the ongoing intersessional CITES working groups on this issue.

Transport of live specimens 

Born Free supported proposals to convene a virtual workshop on transport of live specimens early in 2024 and urged the Committee to consider the need for existing guidelines to be strengthened, in particular through:

  • The development of species-specific guidelines;
  • Measures to evaluate and reduce the risk of pathogen spillover during transport of live animals; and
  • The establishment of responsibilities for ensuring compliance with transport guidelines at all stages of transport.

We anticipate participating in the workshop.

Big cats

There was wide support for measures agreed at a recent meeting of big cat range countries to address illegal trade. Specifically on tigers, the Committee again urged China to invite a visit from the Secretariat to examine the activities at some of its captive tiger breeding facilities, which appear to be involved in illegal trade. Recommendations directed at other key countries implicated in this trade were approved, as were measures specifically addressing trade in leopards.

Elephant issues 

The Committee determined that recent live Asian elephant imports by China from the Lao PDR did not meet the Convention’s definition of ’bred in captivity’. China suspended such imports in 2019. However, the Committee did not agree that the trade in such elephants to zoos in China represented a ‘primarily commercial’ purpose.  This loophole, that allows exports of live animals from threatened species to zoos on the grounds that such exports are not ‘primarily commercial’, is one that Born Free will continue to challenge.

The meeting welcomed the downward trend in the proportion of illegally killed African elephants and ivory seizures, which suggests that poaching continues to decline from its peak in 2011. Nevertheless, poaching for ivory continues to be a major threat to elephant populations, and continued action to address elephant poaching remains critical. A revised African Elephant Action Plan, which was approved by African range States, was welcomed by the Committee.

African elephant range States also discussed the arrangements for a ‘dialogue meeting’, which will be convened in the second half of 2024 in Botswana in an effort to reach consensus on the thorny issue of wild elephant captures for export to captive facilities, and to discuss a number of other elephant trade issues.
The taxonomy of African elephants and the implications of recognising the two distinct species of Savanna and Forest elephants within CITES was also discussed. Further recommendations for any changes to the way CITES classifies African elephants will be made by the CITES Animals Committee.

Great Apes

Illegal trade in bushmeat and live infants continues to be a major problem affecting great apes, all of which are listed on CITES Appendix I, although the issue has not received the attention it requires at CITES in recent years. The Committee encouraged all great ape range States to take urgent steps to develop, implement, or expand great ape management and conservation programmes addressing the major drivers of great ape population declines and illegal trade. It also considered proposals by Liberia to strengthen the CITES Resolution on Great Apes and to re-establish a dedicated Great Apes Enforcement Task Force. The Secretariat will request further input from Parties, so that Liberia can submit revised proposals to the next Conference of the Parties.

Wider issues and concerns 

The meeting discussed species-specific implementation issues involving rhinos, sharks and rays, West African vultures, jaguars, European eels and Saiga antelope, as well as broader administrative, implementation and enforcement issues. It also progressed processes examining significant trade and claims of captive breeding in relation to a raft of species from particular countries. It also noted the ongoing discussions on how to more effectively engage indigenous people and local communities in its deliberations.

Because of the huge agenda, and the limited time and resources that were available, a number of important agenda items had to be deferred to enable country delegates to provide written comments following the meeting. For all its faults and weaknesses, CITES is a vital mechanism for ensuring that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species. Going forward, it is essential that the Convention has sufficient resources to ensure all issues that are brought to the table can be given due consideration, in order to ensure its provisions are effectively implemented and enforced.