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What is CITES and How is it Failing in Ecuador?


The global wildlife trade industry — legal and illegal — moves between $4 and $20 billion a year, according to Our World in Data, which collects data from thousands of researchers around the world.

In an attempt to regulate and control international trade in certain species of flora and fauna  in a way that is legal, sustainable and traceable, an agreement was created, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — CITES, for its acronym in English, that was created in the 1970s. 

In addition to the economic value, the use of biodiversity trade in the world is impetuous: wild animals and plants are traded as pets, for the consumption or sale of meat, for the creation of products such as medicine, or for the sale of their parts such as skins and horns, among others. 

The Poaching and Wildlife Trade study explains that wildlife is legally distributed in very large volumes and it continues to increase rapidly around the world. For example, from 2005 to 2014 the legal trade in wildlife exceeded 100 million organisms per year; for the decade from 1975 to 1985 was ten times less. 

What does the CITES convention imply?

A pile of tree trunks
The CITES Convention not only regulates trade in animals, but also in wild plant species / Credit: CITES.

The goal of the CITES convention is "to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of species," according to its website. Currently, 184 Parties — which may be States or regional economic integration organizations, such as the European Union — have voluntarily adhered to this international treaty. Ecuador is one of them.

Parties that ratify or commit to abide by the provisions of the CITES convention are legally bound by its provisions and basically have to apply the conventions regulations. However, this does not mean that these provisions supersede the national laws of each Member State. Rather, the agreement "provides a framework to be respected by each of the Parties, which have to enact their own national legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level," the website clarifies.

Regardless of whether they are trafficked as live specimens, as fur coats, or as dried herbs, CITES protects more than 37,000 species of animals and plants. According to Franklin Bucheli, a lawyer specialized in International Environmental Law, the convention not only seeks to protect wildlife species, but also those derived from wildlife. Among the products from wild animals and plants there are those that are derived from a greater number of species for meat for human consumption, traditional medicines and animal parts for ornamental use (horns, antlers or skins).

"Let's not forget that the third most profitable illegal business in the world is, precisely, wildlife trafficking and its derivatives," Franklin Bucheli told GK. 

How does CITES work?

All imports and exports of certain wildlife specimens — protected under the convention — must be regulated by CITES through a licensing system. In other words, international trade in these species is subject to CITES controls, which are carried out by the designated administrative and scientific authorities in each member country.

The species that are protected under the convention are divided into a text that contains three appendices or parts. These appendices determine the degree of protection that the species needs; these are the three appendices:

  • Appendix I: Includes all endangered species such as panda bears, woodpeckers, and various types of orchids. Due to the delicate state of the specimens it collects, its trade is authorized only under exceptional circumstances.
  • Appendix II: Includes species that are not necessarily in danger of extinction, but that must be controlled so that their trade does not negatively impact their survival or cause their extinction, such as giraffes, several species of iguanas or African plum trees.
  • Appendix III: Includes species that are protected, at least in one member country, and that has requested help from the other countries that make up the convention to regulate their trade in the world. Framed in this appendix are magnolias and some species of coral snakes
A woodpecker on a tree
The woodpecker is one of the species protected by this convention / Credit: Hans Veth via Unsplash.

CITES in Ecuador

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is in Ecuadorian law, says the lawyer Bucheli. "These conventions, in law, are called principles of extraterritoriality of the norm." In other words, this agreement is in force in several countries and Ecuador is one of its signatories, so the convention should also be fully in force in Ecuadorian territory. However, for Bucheli and other environmental experts consulted, this is not the case.

Gustavo Redin, president of the Ecuadorian Coordinator of Organizations for the Defense of Nature (Cedenma), says of the agreement in Ecuador, "I think it is failing." especially towards marine species. Shark fins, for example, as well as the trunks or any other part of the shark, require CITES permits for export in Ecuador. “And these permits are being granted arbitrarily, without further review of the State and vulnerability of the species. Yes, there is a danger in the marine issue”, assures the president of Cedenma.

For Alejandra Jaramillo, a professor of Wildlife Medicine at the San Francisco de Quito University, one of the main problems with the operation of the convention in Ecuador is that the controls of the environmental authority are inefficient or non-existent. The country's environmental authority in charge of issues related to the convention — known as the CITES authority — is represented by the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (Maate).

Jaramillo explains that many exotic or rare species that are protected by CITES go unnoticed by the environmental authority in Ecuador. “It is easier to regulate native species, from here in the country, because in the Organic Code there is nothing that says that exotic animals [originating from other countries] are under any regulation,” says the wildlife expert.

Although the failures of this convention in the country are numerous, according to the experts, environmental lawyer Franklin Bucheli enthusiastically says that strengthening international cooperation is key. Through international cooperation, says Bucheli, control of the illegal trade in wild flora and fauna could be carried out more efficiently. And Bucheli believes that the spaces to achieve this are those such as the COP19 of the CITES Convention, which will be held in Panama City in November 2022. In it, civil society actors, politicians, scientific and environmental authorities of the countries Members will discuss the complications of the Convention in each country, as well as analyze the status of the species included in it.

This story was produced as part of a Biodiversity Media Initiative travel grant to the 19th Conference of the Parties to CITES. It was originally published in Spanish by GK on 19 September 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing. 

Banner image: The CITES Convention CITES protects more than 37 thousand species of animals and plants / Credit: Pieter van der Boog via Unsplash.