50 Years Later, Reflecting On The Treaty That Controls Wildlife Trade

17:12 minutes

cites 50 years (animals covered by CITES in background with CITES logo overlayed on top)
Image courtesy of CITES media package

50 years ago this month, a collection of nations met in Washington and reached agreement on a way to regulate international trade in certain wildlife species—from orchids to gorillas. That agreement came to be known as CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The treaty has come to cover over 30,000 different plants and animals. Some, listed in Appendix 1 of the treaty, are under a complete ban on commercial use, while other species have their trade tightly regulated via a system of permits.

Dr. Susan Lieberman, the vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has attended the last 13 meetings of the CITES signatories. She joins Ira to talk about the convention, and what it has meant for conservation over the last 50 years.

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Segment Guests

Susan Lieberman

Dr. Susan Lieberman is Vice President for International Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society. She’s based in London, UK.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. There are some kinds of wildlife that you can’t buy or sell at your local store, right, like elephant ivory. And that’s because 50 years ago, this month, a collection of nations met in Washington and reached agreement on a way to regulate international trade in certain wildlife species. That agreement came to be known as CITES. Joining me to talk about that convention and what it means for protecting wildlife over these last five decades is Dr. Susan Lieberman. She’s the vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society. She’s based in London. Welcome to Science Friday.

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. How extensive is CITES? I mean, just how much of wildlife and what kind is covered?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: It covers about 35,000 species, animals and plants, first of all. The majority–


SUSAN LIEBERMAN: –listed are plants, the majority of which are in what’s called appendix 2, which means they can be traded. They were potentially threatened with extinction, but their trade is really strictly regulated. About 950 species are listed in appendix 1. Those are species that cannot be traded commercially internationally at all– African elephants, gorillas, tigers, gray whales, sea turtles, and everything in between. And those decisions are taken by the governments that are members of the treaty.

IRA FLATOW: When you say those decisions are taken, they’re still being listing and delisting?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Yeah, we just finished last November the 19th meeting of what’s called the conference of the parties. The governments that are members are parties to the treaty, get together, make a bunch of decisions on the implementation and enforcement, but also which species should be listed or removed from the convention. And now it’s up to 184 governments, 183 countries plus the EU that are members. So it’s almost the entire world agreed this list of species, trade is either regulated or trade is prohibited. I’m not going to say every wildlife species that is threatened by trade is listed, but a large percentage are.

IRA FLATOW: I want to get into those details a little later, but let’s talk a bit about the history since it is the 50th anniversary that we’re celebrating. What brought it about in the 1970s? Why was that the time?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Well, the early 1970s were a period of initial awareness of endangered and threatened species. We had the Endangered Species Act here in the US. And we’re beginning to see species declining due to trade because that’s when globalization got really going. What drove it initially was not the trade in turtles or parrots that we see today, but the trade in the cat species for the fur trade.

And governments and conservationists got together and said, it’s a free for all. There were no international rules at all. And they said we need rules. We need regulation. You mentioned governments came together to negotiate the treaty. They did it in Washington, DC. And all the other governments, other than the US, call it the Washington Convention. It was a period of agreed governments coming together and agreeing they needed to do the right thing for conservation.

IRA FLATOW: So before that, it was like the Wild West.

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Completely. And if you think, OK, there are now 184 countries, previously, some countries may have bans on an export of something, but there were no international regulation. US could export, import anything. China could export or import anything. And there were no international rules. We looked back and we’d think, that’s impossible, but someone had to come up with the idea and they did. And they negotiated and came up with a treaty that is now– it is seen as one of the most successful, if not the most successful, conservation agreement.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s talk about this process then. How does it get decided what animals get on the list?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: So how did they get listed? Before one of these big conferences or summits where all the governments who are members get together, governments have to submit a scientific proposal, and they take it to this forum and they present it, and they either– everybody agrees by consensus or there’s a vote that requires a 2/3 vote, which is really interesting because later treaties more recently are not based on vote. Everyone has to agree. It’s all consensus.

And there was a lot of foresight in saying, look, you’re never going to have 100%, but if you get 2/3 of the members– now it’s practically 2/3 of the whole world– then that species proposal should be approved. So there are going to be species that may qualify. But if a government doesn’t submit it, it doesn’t happen. And a lot of us in the conservation community, Wildlife Conservation Society and others, work closely with governments monitoring species impacted by trade, doing the science, publishing papers, and inform governments when we believe they should take into consideration submitting a proposal.

IRA FLATOW: Do you get much pushback from some of these governments?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: In some cases, there’s thank you very much, but we have political and economic pressures on us here, so we can’t submit that proposal. I don’t want to pretend it’s all pure science. Everyone’s sitting around a room, and there’s no politics going on. And it took almost 30 years to really list the majority of the world’s sharks on CITES, and that wasn’t because the science wasn’t there.

But no, sometimes there’s pushback. Sometimes governments will say, oh, it’s a really great idea, but no, I don’t have the time, or politically, where that’s too fraught, or that’s too economically valuable. But often, governments really appreciate it, and we work behind the scenes with a lot of governments, if they have low capacity in particularly. The US and the EU don’t need our help. They may need a push, but they don’t need our help. They’ve got good scientists, but other countries sometimes do need help with the capacity to take a scientific proposal to such a major international forum.

IRA FLATOW: Are there different levels of protection, like tiers?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Yeah, well, there’s basically two. The appendix one are the species that are threatened, and there can be no international commercial trade. There can be non-commercial trade with a permit, like for scientific research or something like that. But for commercial trade, that tier is the greatest protection.

IRA FLATOW: Would a zoo be considered commercial trade?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Generally, no. Generally, the zoos are considered what’s called not for primarily commercial purposes. The accredited major zoos are exchanging animals for conservation purposes, et cetera, or may move an animal for health purposes, whereas circuses, for example, are commercial, right, because their reason for moving animals is primarily commercial, to make money.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and the other level you mentioned.

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: The other level is this appendix, too, where trade is allowed. You’ll think of the American alligator maybe, and there are a lot of other species. Trade is allowed, but it’s tightly regulated. Governments have to issue a permit, and that permit has to be based on science that it’s not detrimental to the species. And it has to also confirm that it’s legal. So there’s a tight control, and governments check permits when shipments come in. I’m not going to say it’s perfect, but those are basically the two tiers that are involved.

IRA FLATOW: So I may still see animals or animal products that are governed by CITES in the marketplace.

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: True, absolutely. And you shouldn’t think automatically that it’s illegal if you find– well, certainly, American alligators, if it’s in the US, it’s not an export. It’s within the US. But if you see American alligator products in Europe, that doesn’t mean it’s illegal. It’s appendix 2, and it probably most likely had a permit from the US government for export from one of the states in the US.

IRA FLATOW: What are the teeth– no pun intended– of this being enforced?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Well, there’s two levels. The main level is there’s [INAUDIBLE] CITES police out there. The headquarters of the secretariat are in Switzerland. They don’t have a police force out there. It’s enforced and implemented at the national level. So imports and exports from each country are enforced by their own enforcement authorities. Now, the US has designated agents and inspectors of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Other countries have custom– well, we have customs, too, but other countries have special individuals in customs. It’s enforced at the national level, basically.

But in addition, the countries are really not complying with the treaty. There are egregious violations. CITES gets together and will look at issues of non-compliance by countries and has the authority to ban trade in wildlife from that country until they clean up their act. That’s not done lightly, but it does have some teeth. Sometimes they’re not sharp enough, but some other treaties have no teeth.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. And this only covers visible trade. There must be a lot of illegal and poaching that’s going on that the treaties can’t regulate.

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: No, but so, say, for example, rhino horn is banned, OK, but there’s still poaching of rhinos in Southern Africa and still smuggling and trafficking by organized criminal gangs from Southern Africa to Asia, right? So that’s not a fault of CITES. It said it’s on appendix 1, but there needs to be better enforcement in Africa and in the importing countries, in Asia.

IRA FLATOW: But again, as you say, this is international trade.


IRA FLATOW: Right, there could be domestic stuff that’s unprotected.

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: That’s up to each country’s national law, but for really endangered appendix 1 species, CITES governments have also adopted resolutions and recommendations to countries on what they need to do domestically as well, such as there’s a lot of talk about cracking down more on the online trade because there’s a lot of online trade now in wildlife and wildlife products.

But also, countries have been recommended to close their domestic ivory markets, and that’s happened. China, the US, EU, UK, have closed their domestic ivory markets. You can’t find ivory if you walk on Fifth Avenue right now. I remember in the ’80s, when you could. But closing the domestic market, CITES has recommended it as a way to help the elephants recover, and it’s actually working.

IRA FLATOW: If you were to renegotiate or start 50 years later and start over from the beginning with this treaty, would you do anything differently? How would you improve it?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Well, if you started now, I think it would be harder to get the vote in, OK?

IRA FLATOW: Oh, really?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Yeah, there’s much more of a sense, well, we should have a consensus that everyone should agree. That’s one of the problems with the Convention on Biological Diversity or the climate change convention. Decisions are only by consensus. No, I think the treaty is great, actually. I think the treaty is clear that it covers all flora and fauna. It might have been clearer that definitely it includes marine fish, but governments have all agreed it does.

So the treaty is great. When things are not working, it’s not the fault of a treaty, which is a piece of paper that everyone has agreed to. It’s a fault of implementation or many countries just don’t have the capacity. They don’t have the resources or the capacity to crack down and as much as they would like. Environment ministries or departments are never the best funded.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’ve been following this for years. I understand. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. How do we know that this treaty is working so well? So how do you measure it?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: It’s a tough one to measure because we don’t have another planet where we don’t have the treaty that we can compare as control, right? But if we look at there are species that were declining and, after the protection of CITES, are starting to recover or not declining further, such as tigers. Tigers have been hit hard by the illegal trade, but we’re seeing in India healthy populations increases in a number of other countries.

But many of these species are subject to other threats. Climate change is so much worse. Habitat loss is so much worse. So if you say, well, species X is still declining, CITES isn’t working, but maybe species X is being hit by all these other threats. But it is hard to measure. There’s no question because you also need the resources to monitor wildlife populations. And some of these species are very long-lived. Some of the species of whales, where the trade was banded in the late 1980s on CITES appendix 1 and the International Whaling Commission, are only now we’re seeing signs of recovery of populations because their generation time is so long. But what we can measure is that they’re no longer declining.

IRA FLATOW: Well, speaking of whales, how does this fit into the universe of other environmental agreements that you track? And I’m thinking of the recent high seas treaty.

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Yeah, I think that’s, first of all, that’s a super important agreement that governments finally agreed that there is a way to protect biodiversity. And the half of the planet that is high seas are what’s called the areas beyond national jurisdiction. Many species on the high seas are also impacted by international trade. And CITES also regulates that.

So there’s a mechanism under CITES for issuing permits and all of that if, say, sharks that are listed on sightings are taken on the high seas. Countries that land them, bring them within their borders, are required to issue a CITES permit and confirm that it’s not detrimental to the species. That’s considered trade as well, from the high seas to a port. So there is an intersection, and CITES predates the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the authority for this new treaty. So it’s a matter of juggling and adopting decisions and resolutions in CITES, but they’re well integrated because it’s the same government.

IRA FLATOW: Right. This being the 50th anniversary this year, let’s end on a high note. Can you give me a few success stories, places you think CITES has really done its job?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Well, here in the US, the American alligator is not an endangered species. It was an endangered species when CITES was agreed that trade in alligator is tightly regulated by the federal government and the states. Populations are doing well. Some people in Florida may think they’re doing too well.

But populations are doing well. There are many species of parrots whose populations were crashing. With the regulation under CITES, their populations are either increasing or stabilized, though, unfortunately, there is still illegal trade. And as I mentioned, tiger populations are increasing in India, in the Russian Far East, in Thailand and a couple other countries in spite of trade pressures. And a lot of that, without CITES, I think tigers would be gone.

Now, I can’t prove that scientifically because I said there’s no control to look at it against. But I think if we look at the big cat species, we look at jaguars as there is a problem with illegal trade in their teeth, but in general, the populations are doing OK. It’s not only CITES, but the ability of many countries to manage their wildlife is increased, I think, because of CITES because they have to implement this treaty.

And the last one I would say, even though there’s controversy around it, elephants, without CITES, we would only have elephants in a few countries in Southern Africa. But they’ve held on and increasing in parts of East Africa and Central Africa because of the controls of CITES, controls on the ivory trade.

IRA FLATOW: These are great success stories in animals. What about success stories in plants?

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Yeah, the one that comes to mind is the big leaf mahogany, the very valuable species of the rainforest, particularly of South America. It took four CITES meetings to convince the governments to list it on appendix 2 and regulate the trade. But that trade is now being regulated. It’s being regulated well, and the species is not being wiped out. The trade is being monitored and regulated closely.

And interestingly, many other timber species have now been listed since the mahogany was listed. There was a lot of resistance. You can’t list timber. It’s hard to regulate. It’s hard to identify. But they are identifiable and there has been a lot of progress in the timber trade since the early years in the discussions on mahogany.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Dr. Lieberman, I want to congratulate you and wish you and your organization well, the 50th anniversary of this treaty. And thank you for taking time to be with us today.

SUSAN LIEBERMAN: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Susan Lieberman, vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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