CITES CoP17 - what you need to know

Conference of the Parties






In the run up to the CITES CoP in September 2016, Save the Rhino has put together this handy guide with all you need to know about the landmark event in the conservation calendar.

What is CITES?

CITES, or “the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna” – to give its full title – is an international treaty, or voluntary agreement, between governments who chose to join its ranks.

In the 1960s, when environmental conservation was a relatively new concept, CITES was a ground-breaking agreement and came into force on 01 July 1975. Governments that join are known as “Parties” and, to date, CITES has 182 Parties from across the globe, all working together to regulate the international wildlife trade.

Why does it exist?

CITES’ aim is to make sure that the international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival by over exploitation, in a time of unprecedented loss of biodiversity and mass extinction.

CITES legislation is primarily based around trading agreements – making sure that wildlife trade is regulated at an international level, with appropriate licensing, or outright bans, put in place.

How does it work?

States that join CITES are legally bound, by international law, to implement the convention to protect their wildlife. However, to do so they need to have the right national laws, and effective legal enforcement. This is where things can get tricky.

Furthermore, CITES members vote on new proposals, or changes to existing ones. A two-thirds majority is required for them to pass, and so a majority of political will is needed to drive change. As with all international relations, reaching a consensus is not always easy.

This is especially true when governments receive pressure from domestic industries that stand to lose revenue from tighter regulations or outright bans. Cultural factors also can come into play, with some countries feeling that their traditions – for example whale hunting in Iceland or shark fin soup in China – are unfairly critiqued on the international stage.

CITES members have to report back to their peers on their work and explain what measures they are taking to prevent flouting of the law. CITES can give a Party “special measures” – if their efforts aren’t up to scratch. These range in severity, from formal warnings to trade sanctions.

What has changed?

When CITES was adopted, its Parties identified the illegal wildlife trade as the defining factor in the loss of flora and fauna. At that time, exotic pets, fur coats and unsustainable fishing including whaling were all common sights and practices pushing species to extinction. Today, tougher legislation and increased awareness has seen great strides made in protecting life on land and at sea. However, criticisms have also been levelled at CITES.

At 2010’s CoP, conservationists were disappointed that its members rejected outright an international trade ban on the over-fished Bluefin tuna, a decision described as a “disaster” by Greenpeace. Commentators have branded the treaty a talking shop that has failed to tackle the escalating poaching crisis effectively.

What’s a CoP?

Every three years CITES holds a meeting for its members, or “Conference of the Parties”; otherwise known as a “CoP”. At each CoP, members come together and, using data and intelligence from a range of experts, decide if the legal protection given to certain species should be increased or decreased based on population trends and trade issues.

How does CITES classify species?

CITES operates three main classifications for species:

  • Appendix I - No international trade permitted - unless for scientific reasons
  • Appendix II - Limited trade is allowed under specific conditions
  • Appendix III- A list of species put forward by at least one Party which already regulates its trade, but has asked for cooperation from others to do this effectively.

How is CITES enforced within each country?

State’s wildlife enforcement officers are responsible for relaying information and progress to CITES. Many are under-resourced, and multiple departments from police, to customs and border control are often involved in reviewing and enforcing CITES export and import permits, and bringing criminals to trial.

How does Save the Rhino interface with CITES?


Information sharing

Save the Rhino will not be attending the CoP17 – it’s expensive and time-consuming to do so – but Director Cathy Dean is a member of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group. This body of experts is responsible for Africa’s continent-wide strategy for rhino monitoring and protection. The Group makes sure that the best scientific knowledge and data is used in rhino conservation decision making and by the people working on the front line – those in rhino monitoring, anti-poaching, or breeding capacities.

The African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC are  responsible for providing CITES and its Parties with comprehensive information on African and Asian rhinos – including the threats they face and opportunities to protect both African species.Their report is used to inform the CITES Secretariat and the CITES Rhino Working Group, and many other organisations, to gain a good understanding of the status and conservation of and trade in  African and Asian rhinos. Countries who are part of the CITES convention can also call on the AfRSG and its members for specialist support.


Save the Rhino also works with campaigning organisation in Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV), a Vietnamese NGO combatting the country’s illegal wildlife trade. ENV lobbies CITES to take tougher measures against Viet Nam, as the country is widely identified as, along with China, being one of the largest markets for illegally traded rhino horn.

What will happen at CoP17 and why is it so important?

At CITES, a key report submitted by IUCN Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC) African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC will be discussed. Covering the status of each species, its conservation and the illegal horn trade, the document draws important conclusions:

  • The illegal horn trade has doubled since 2013
  • South Africa remains the main source country for illegally traded horns
  • Viet Nam is the primary market but there is little evidence of law enforcement efforts by the authorities
  • China, including Hong Kong, emerges as second but with more commitment shown in prosecution efforts.
  • South Africa, Mozambique, Viet Nam and Zimbabwe are identified as countries for priority attention from CITES. It is recommended that Namibia is added to this list due to its escalating poaching crisis.
  • It is recommended that China is added to CITES’ countries of Priority Concern, as there is good evidence that it has a significant market for illegally traded rhino horn.
  • Furthermore, in the run up to CITES, South Africa surprised more or less everyone by not submitting a proposal for domestic horn trade. Swaziland, on the other hand, has submitted their own proposal, and by the end of CITES we will know if the ban on domestic trading has been lifted.

Will CITES solve the poaching crisis?

International trade between countries is incredibly important when fostering cooperation and this capacity CITES has the clout to tackle the poaching crisis. In the 1977, CITES agreed an international ban in the trade in rhino horn, instrumental in the animals’ recovery from intensive poaching.

But it’s important to note that CITES doesn’t just ban trade, it also votes to allow trade, and evidence shows that sustainable utilisation can bring conservation benefits. For example, at the turn of the 20th Century, numbers of white rhino were critically low with just 50-100 remaining in South Africa. Urgent action was taken, including a landmark decision in 1968 when South Africa legalised limited, permitted hunting of the species. During this period, their numbers increased from 1,800 to over 20,000, as white rhinos gained economic value and private landowners were incentivised to own them; vital as non-agricultural land is increasingly squeezed. In 2004, at CoP13, CITES approved applications by Namibia and South Africa to allow a maximum of five, surplus male black rhinos to be hunted per year.

The success of CITES and its legislation, however, is only as strong as the political will and enforcement of its members, and how they address the issues symbiotic to the wider poaching crisis. In the attempt to create international cooperation and trade between countries, politics can sometimes get in the way of taking a firm line on important issues. CITES only meets every three years, but the poaching crisis has adapted and changed dramatically in the intervening period. Seemingly, its members are hesitant to enforce CITES powers on non-compliant countries. What incentives are there for Mozambique to implement the regulations put against it in CoP 15, if trade sanctions are discussed, but not realised?

Today’s trafficking in wildlife products is unlike 30 years ago. The rhino horn trade is well organised and is truly international, exploiting both online and existing criminal networks. However most enforcement to date has focused on Level 1 criminals – poachers who are easily replaced. To tackle transnational crime syndicates, countries need to deploy the same tools and techniques used against other domestic and transnational organised crimes, as provided for in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (32) and the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (33).

Does CITES bring the right people together who can tackle the poaching crisis? And what role does domestic and foreign security play in bringing the appropriate resources to the table? CITES has the potential to tackle the rhino poaching crisis head on. Yet with so little resource, hesitation to enforce its power, and without the right people involved in the conservation, it members will remain hamstrung against the rhino horn kingpins.

Ruthlessly efficient, imaginative, endlessly adaptive [Criminal networks are] everything that the government bureaucracies and law enforcement agencies rallied against them are not - Julian Rademeyer

(4) Comments

  • alexia abnett
    28 August 2016, 11:25

    You need to edit under title Will CITES solve the poaching crisis?
    Second paragraph, where you say that 5 hunts per year are allowed in Namibia and South Africa. That only applies to the black rhino.
    White rhino are allowed to be hunted, as long as all requirements are met, set down in TOPS. One hunter, one rhino.

  • Anonymous commenter
    30 August 2016, 19:11

    Seems like Kruger national park doesn't give a damn about the rhinos.

    Here's a piece my cousins husband wrote yesterday.
    Written by my cousins husband yesterday; I translated so all of you can understand. This is something that makes my blood boil to hear of. They didn't get pics because it happened too far from the road. The rangers in the Kruger National Park are supposed to be there to PROTECT the animals not???
    Please share with all your friends

    "Today Mari Jooste and I have seen a lot of animals in Kruger National Park, elephants, rhino, wild dogs, buffalo, leopard (2x) and many other animals.
    On one of the roads we saw two young rhinos. One walking around and the other lying down. We soon discovered the one on the ground was having problems to get up, and if it tried, was unable to and screamed in pain.
    We tried to call but Vodacom had no reception. Eventually I called on my iPad. I reached the Kruger National Park number we got at the gate, but spoke to the most unfriendly, unhelpful man. Later a young lieutenant of the police happened to come along, and he went over and confirmed the rhino had big problems. We called all his contacts. Unfortunately, the rhinoceros moved less and less, his/her partner was panicking, running around not knowing what was happening.
    After 2.5 hours we left when Lt. Nel confirmed the rhinoceros was no longer breathing. At that time still NO Ranger made their appearance. We gave what little water we had to him to try and cool the rhino down ... but it was too late.
    I tried to report this incident at Skukuza base camp, but I the trees would have listened better than the relevant Field Ranger. He did not do anything and was not interested in my sad story at all !!

    I realized again today that in any job there are good and bad workers. This was very apparent today at Kruger National Park. They probably would not have been able to help the rhino, but maybe they could have relieved its pain on site. I do hope they at least investigate and try to catch the young one, as I doubt it is mature enough to survive on its own.

    Today we as humans surely did not do enough to help that rhino."

  • Simon Greenwood
    05 September 2016, 13:13

    Very interesting, and good to hear action at an international level is clearly taking place. Let's hope the next CoP is a successful one.

  • Nombuza
    04 October 2016, 01:43

    In truth no one in the SA Goverment truly cares about preserving the wildlife heritage we possess.
    There is this place in limpopo called Sebilong that has abundant wildlife,It was given to the rural community several years ago but because of poverty and corruption (perpetrated by the governing CPA and Land affairs) anyone can come there and kill game animals without a permit and no one does anything about it.

    in brief preserving wildlife in South Africa is not a pressing/fashionable issue.

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