The international trade in wildlife, worth billions of dollars every year, has been one of the factors responsible for the massive decline in the numbers of many species of animals and plants.

The wildlife trade is a highly lucrative business. Millions of live animals and plants are shipped around the world each year to supply the pet trade and to meet the demand for ornamental plants. Fur skins, leather, timber, and articles manufactured from these materials are all traded in large quantities.

In 1973 the scale of trade aroused such concern for the survival of species that an international treaty was drawn up in Washington to protect wildlife against overexploitation and to prevent international trade from threatening species with extinction.

Known both as the Washington Convention and as CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora now has 120 member countries. These countries have joined together to ban trade in an agreed list of currently endangered species and to regulate and monitor trade in others that might become endangered.

There are over 13,000 known species of mammals and birds, as well as thousands of reptiles, amphibians and fish, millions of invertebrates and some 250,000 species of flowering plants. Extinction is a natural part of the evolution of life on Earth. But in recent times humans have been responsible for the loss of most of the animals and plants that have disappeared. Gone for ever, for example, are 17 species or sub­species of bears, five of wolves and foxes, four of cats, 10 of cattle, sheep, goats or antelopes, five of horses, zebras and asses, and three of deer.

The last dodo, a large flightless bird, was killed on Mauritius in 1681, while the passenger pigeon, whose huge flocks darkened the skies of North America barely a hundred years ago, was also wiped out by demand for food early this century.

Many species are declining in numbers because of loss of habitat and increased exploitation as the human population grows. Trade has now also become a major factor in the decline as improvement in transport has made it possible to ship live animals and plants and their products anywhere in the world.

A dramatic example is the vicuna, a gazelle­like relative of the camels, which lives in the high Andes. Because of its exceptionally fine and warm wool, which has been in great demand in North America and Europe, nearly half a million were slaughtered after the Second World War before Peru pioneered protection in the 1960s to save the species.

CITES has established a world-wide system of controls on international trade in threatened wildlife products by making government permits necessary for this trade. These permits are often printed using special security paper and stamps to prevent forgery.

Protection is provided for species in two main groups:

The most endangered species are listed in Appendix I of the convention. These species are threatened with extinction and their ability to survive may be affected by trade. So as not to endanger them further, no permits are issued for international trade in these species unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Among those listed in Appendix I are all apes, lemurs, the giant panda, many South American monkeys, great whales, cheetahs, leopards, tigers, elephants, all rhinos, many birds of prey, cranes, pheasants and parrots, all sea turtles, some crocodiles and lizards, giant salamanders, the coelacanth, some mussels, orchids and cacti.

Other species at serious risk are listed in Appendix II. These species might become endangered if trade in them is not controlled and monitored. This appendix also lists some species which are not themselves threatened, but which might be confused with those needing protection. International trade in Appendix II species is allowed with proper permits issued by the government of the exporting country. The list includes, amongst others, all species in the following groups which are not already in Appendix I : primates, cats, otters, dolphins and porpoises, birds of prey, parrots, tortoises, crocodiles and orchids, as well as many other species, such as fur seals, birds of paradise, some snails, birdwing butterflies and black corals.

Countries may enforce additional, stricter controls than required by CITES if they wish to give special protection to a particular species (Appendix III.) They can even ban trade in all their wildlife. When the member states hold their meetings twice each year they discuss changes to the lists of protected species. Non­governmental organizations, including WWF and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), as well as trade associations, take an active part in the meetings. In most countries, customs officers are given the task of enforcing CITES regulations. Governments also have to submit reports, including trade records, to the CITES Secretariat in Switzerland.

On behalf of the CITES Secretariat, information on world trade in wildlife is collected and analyzed by the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Unit (WTMU), which is part of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, England. Apart from the trade statistics submitted by governments, WTMU also receives information from the IUCN/WWF TRAFFIC offices in 17 countries. By monitoring the trade closely, WTMU and the TRAFFIC network are able to help the CITES Secretariat spot problem areas.

CITES has brought a wide measure of control in the wildlife trade, and this control is being steadily improved as action is taken to deal with gaps and inconsistencies revealed by analysis of export and import records. Many wildlife traders, who at first regarded CITES with suspicion, are now co-operating as they have realized that well-controlled trade is in their business interest. Some are even providing funds for surveys and projects.

Like most laws and conventions, CITES needs the support and cooperation of the public. The convention does not ban all trade in wildlife products, but it ensures that trade does not contribute to possible extinction of animals and plants. Members of the public should be very careful when buying wildlife products and always make sure that what they buy is accompanied by the necessary documents.    - Summer 2001

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