icon/64x64/nature Nature

What is CITES, and why does it matter for South Asia?

In November, the world’s governments will convene in Panama for a major meeting on wildlife trade – our explainer unpacks the big points for South Asia ahead of CITES CoP19
<p>A proposal to regulate international trade in the white-rumped shama, a songbird found in the wild from India to Indonesia, has been submitted to the upcoming CITES CoP19 meeting in Panama (Image: Shih-Hao Liao / Alamy)</p>

A proposal to regulate international trade in the white-rumped shama, a songbird found in the wild from India to Indonesia, has been submitted to the upcoming CITES CoP19 meeting in Panama (Image: Shih-Hao Liao / Alamy)

What is CITES?

CITES is an agreement that regulates the movement across international borders of certain species of wild animal and plant. It is thanks to CITES that international commercial trade in many high-profile wildlife products – such as big cat skins, elephant ivory and rhino horn – is banned.

CITES (or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in full) came into effect in 1975, with 10 signatory states (or parties). Since then, almost every country in the world has signed up, plus the European Union. CITES currently has 184 parties.

When and where will CITES CoP19 be held?

The 19th Conference of the Parties to CITES – or CoP19 – will be held in Panama City between 14 and 25 November 2022. Meetings of the convention’s Standing Committee will happen immediately before and after CoP19, also in Panama City.

What are the CITES appendices?

CITES works by listing species of wild plant and animal on one of three appendices.

Appendix I is meant for those species which are threatened with extinction, and where trade is a current or potential threat to their continued existence. Any international movement of these species – or products made from them – requires permits from both the exporting and importing country. International trade for commercial purposes is generally not allowed. There are currently 1,082 species of plant and animal on Appendix I.

Appendix II is intended for species which may not be currently threatened with extinction, but could become so if trade is not regulated. In practice, Appendix II includes many highly endangered species. By far the biggest CITES Appendix, it includes 37,420 species, the majority of which are plants. International commercial trade in these species is allowed under CITES, but requires a permit from the exporting country, after determining that the export will not harm the survival of the species, and that the specimen has been obtained legally.

Appendix III is used when a specific country wants to regulate trade in a given species. Whereas additions to Appendix I and II require the agreement of two-thirds of the CoP, a country can add species to Appendix III unilaterally. Export permits are then required for that species to be exported from the country.

The vast majority of wild animals and plant species – including many which are threatened – are not listed on any of the CITES appendices.

What is the CITES CoP for?

At CITES CoPs, member states convene to decide on changes to the appendices, and to review how the convention is being implemented.

Decisions and resolutions are adopted and amended at the CITES CoP, which guide the parties and the CITES Secretariat in implementing the convention on a day-to-day basis. Decisions may include the commission of studies and reviews into the trade and conservation status of various wildlife species.

What happens if a country doesn’t follow CITES rules?

The convention text requires parties to “take appropriate measures” to enforce the convention and to “prohibit trade in specimens in violation thereof”. These measures include having domestic laws to implement the convention, seizing illegally traded wildlife and punishing illegal trade, or trafficking, of CITES-listed wildlife.

If a country is found to be consistently failing to abide by CITES rules, a recommendation may be issued to other parties to suspend trade with that country in some or all CITES-listed species – in effect a trade sanction.

North Indian rosewood_Dalbergia sissoo
North Indian rosewood, a tree species native to South Asia, which India and Nepal are proposing to remove from Appendix II at CITES CoP19 (Image: Bijay Chaurasia / Wikimedia)

What South Asian species are on the agenda at CITES CoP19?

White-rumped shama

Malaysia and Singapore have jointly submitted a proposal to CITES CoP19 to add the white-rumped shama to Appendix II. This long-tailed relative of the familiar magpie-robin occurs across much of South and Southeast Asia, from India and Nepal to Borneo. Thanks to its beautiful song, it is a sought-after species in the cage bird trade, particularly in Indonesia. While the species is not yet considered threatened at a global level, the proposal highlights that populations in Southeast Asia are thought to be declining due to capture for the cage bird trade, and that some distinctive subspecies are highly threatened or even extinct.

The proposal warns that as populations of the white-rumped shama near the main demand centres in Indonesia are increasingly depleted, trappers are looking elsewhere for the species, as indicated by a growing number of cross-border smuggling cases. The proposal has already received support from countries where the species lives in the wild, including Nepal and Thailand.

Straw-headed bulbul

Submitted by Malaysia, Singapore and the US, this proposal seeks to move the straw-headed bulbul from CITES Appendix II – which means international commercial trade is allowed with permits – to Appendix I, which would ban such trade. The world’s largest bulbul, the straw-headed bulbul is considered a highly desirable species in Southeast Asia’s cage bird trade. Like the white-rumped shama, the straw-headed bulbul also has a beautiful song – a fact that has driven it to the edge of extinction.

Once found from Myanmar to Java, less than 1,700 adult individuals are now believed to survive in the wild, mostly in Malaysia and Singapore. The straw-headed bulbul is considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The straw-headed bulbul has been listed on CITES Appendix II since 1997. Now, as populations dwindle to zero across much of its range, the proposal argues that any further trade could drive it to extinction. It has already received the support of Thailand and Myanmar, as well as the CITES Secretariat.

The straw-headed bulbul is close to extinction in Indonesia
The straw-headed bulbul is close to extinction in Indonesia, where it was briefly added to the protected species list in 2018, before being removed after pressure from the cage bird lobby (Image: Alamy)

Siamese crocodile

The Siamese crocodile, which is critically endangered in the wild but widely farmed commercially in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, is currently listed on CITES Appendix I. An exemption for registered captive-breeding operations allows certain crocodile farms to export products made from the species. But a proposal from Thailand seeks to move the country’s population of the species from Appendix I to Appendix II, with a ‘zero export quota’ for wild specimens. This would mean Thailand would no longer have to follow rules around registering breeding facilities to export products made from farmed Siamese crocodiles.

Thailand’s proposal claims that its wild populations of the Siamese crocodile are not threatened by hunting, and that there is no illegal trade in the species in the country. However, the CITES Secretariat notes that the tiny wild population (100-200 individuals) still meets the criteria for an Appendix I listing, and recommends that this proposal be rejected. The same proposal was rejected at CITES CoP16 in 2013.

Jeypore Indian gecko

This gecko species was only rediscovered in 2010, having been previously known only from a 19th century museum specimen. It is known only from three locations in India’s Eastern Ghats, and populations appear to be declining – it is considered globally endangered. India has submitted a proposal to CITES CoP19 to add the species to Appendix II.

The proposal says that the species, with its attractive blotchy skin, may be vulnerable to the pet trade. Despite no records of permitted exports, the Jeypore Indian gecko has been spotted being offered for sale on social media outside India, indicating smuggling has already taken place.

Freshwater turtles

India has put forward two proposals to move species of freshwater turtle from Appendix II to Appendix I, which would prohibit international commercial trade in the species. With a total of 12 proposals seeking stricter protections for turtle and tortoise species, the group is set to be a focus of discussion at CITES CoP19.

The red-crowned roofed turtle is a critically endangered freshwater turtle historically found through the Ganga basin of India and Bangladesh, but now definitively known only from one site in northern India, on the Chambal River. It is hunted both for the pet trade and for consumption as food. India’s proposal to CITES CoP19 states that despite its highly protected status in India, the species still appears in international trade, suggesting that smuggling continues.

 A red-crowned roofed turtle
A red-crowned roofed turtle, which India is proposing to move to CITES Appendix I at CoP19 (Image: Nariman Vazifdar / Alamy)

Similarly, Leith’s softshell turtle is critically endangered and found only in India, in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. This large freshwater turtle species is hunted for its meat, and is believed to have declined by 90% in the last three decades, driven by overhunting and habitat loss. India’s proposal suggests that the species is smuggled internationally – it points to processed shell cartilage being found in illegal trade rather than live animals, indicating this was destined for consumption in soups and traditional medicine in East and Southeast Asia.

North Indian rosewood

At CITES CoP17 in 2016, all tree species in the genus Dalbergia – usually known as rosewood – were added to Appendix II, meaning international commercial trade in their timber requires an export permit (with exemptions for small items). This was on the basis that in order to properly regulate trade in threatened members of the genus – many of which enforcement officials would find very hard to tell apart – permitting requirements for the whole genus were needed. Indian rosewood (Dalbergia sissoo) was one of the species included.

In a proposal to CoP19, India and Nepal are jointly calling for the species to be deleted from Appendix II. The proposal argues that the species is common and so does not need protection from trade; that it can be distinguished from other species in the genus via gene sequencing, spectrometry or by measuring its wood density; and that the CITES listing has hit India’s exports of furniture and handicrafts made from the wood.

The proposal has received support from China and Sudan. However, a similar proposal to delete the species from Appendix II was rejected at CITES CoP18. Moreover, in its assessment, the CITES Secretariat questions whether enforcement officials could really distinguish Indian rosewood from threatened Dalbergia species in practice, and suggests the reasoning for its listing in the first place still stands.

What other important topics will be discussed at CITES CoP19?

The debate over adding or removing species from the CITES appendices is not the only thing that happens at a CITES CoP. While listing proposals are being discussed in one session, another is held concurrently which covers a wide range of other agenda items – from the financing and administration of the convention, to reviewing how well CITES is being implemented with respect to certain species.

The control of illegal trade in captive-bred tigers will be one topic of discussion. Thousands of tigers are held in captivity in China and Southeast Asia, and illegal trade in their body parts has long been a focus of CITES discussions, given widespread concern that the trade is stoking demand for wild tigers. The Secretariat was supposed to have visited countries of concern – including China, Laos, Thailand, the US and Vietnam – to assess efforts to address the problem before CoP19, but Covid-19 and funding issues meant these ‘missions’ are yet to happen. With illegal trade still a huge threat to wild tiger populations, India has consistently pressed for urgency to tackle the captive tiger trade – while China has frequently pushed back on the notion that CITES has a say in its domestic controls.

Pangolins are another group that is seriously threatened by illegal trade, due in large part to the demand for their scales for use in traditional Chinese medicine. All species, including the Indian pangolin, are listed on CITES Appendix I, meaning international commercial trade is banned. But pangolin scales are still used legally in China in production of traditional medicines. Meanwhile, tonnes of smuggled pangolin scales are seized in Africa and Asia every year. At CoP19, the UK is proposing adding a recommendation to the CITES resolution on pangolins, urging countries to ban domestic trade in pangolins if it is contributing to poaching or illegal trade.