50th anniversary of the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species


Elephants are also covered by the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. © Guenterguni/ iStock

We are currently in the sixth major mass extinction in Earth's history. Climate change and human impact are causing dozens of species to disappear forever every day. The Washington Convention for the Protection of Endangered Species (CITES), which was signed 50 years ago on March 3, 1973, is considered to be the most effective weapon against this. But even this is not free of criticism. What can we do better to protect species?

The Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, also known as CITES, has existed since March 3, 1973 and has since been signed by 184 countries. The countries undertake to protect endangered animals and plants from extinction. Around 33,000 plant species and around 6,000 animal species are now covered by the agreement. Trade in these species is either completely forbidden or only allowed under strict conditions. Every three years, the States Parties, conservationists and trade representatives meet to update the composition of this list.

How does the agreement protect endangered species?

There are three different categories of protection within the Washington Convention. Animals and plants of the first category, also called "Appendix I", may not be traded internationally. The term “trade” is used here to mean exports and imports between different countries. Trade within a state, on the other hand, is not covered by the agreement. Appendix I primarily lists species that are acutely threatened with extinction, such as great apes, great whales, tigers, Asian elephants and gray parrots.

However, most species are listed in Appendix II. They are not yet threatened with extinction but are potentially endangered by trade. A place on Appendix II means that although a species can be traded, such trade must not affect the survival of the species. This applies, for example, to tortoises, crocodiles, rosewood or sharks. Appendix III contains species that are only banned from trade in a specific country. These include civet cats from India, anteaters from Guatemala and humpback turtles from the USA.

"With its almost worldwide validity, binding decisions and sanction options, CITES is the sharpest sword we have in international species protection despite its 50 years," explains Sandra Altherr from the species protection organization Pro Wildlife. “African elephants, ocelots, humpback whales and scarlet macaws would probably have been extinct today if CITES hadn't drawn the line. Trade bans on ivory and whale meat from the 1980s, but also the recent protection of 60 shark and 37 ray species in 2022 are historic milestones.”

Still room for improvement in species protection

Although the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has proved its worth, it is far from perfect. Species protection organizations criticize, among other things, that some animals and plants are still missing from the annexes to the agreement - including even those that are already on the Red List of species threatened with extinction. This is also due to the fact that the CITES conferences only take place every three years and only then can the composition of the appendices be reassessed. The organization Pro Wildlife complains that it is too slow to keep up with the current extinction of species.

In addition, at the CITES conferences there are often conflicts of interest between conservationists and trade representatives such as ivory traders or the tropical timber industry. The protection status of elephants, rhinos, sharks, big cats and tropical timber is one of the hotly contested ongoing issues. Species conservationists fear that in some cases these economic interests could actually weaken existing bans. The organization Pro Wildlife advises: “We therefore urgently need a reversal of the burden of proof: biodiversity protection must take precedence over commercial exploitation. Extraction from the wild should only be permitted if it can be proven that it is ecologically harmless.”

Source: Pro Wildlife, CITES

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