Alliances between international organizations:

The ivory trade is one of the most controversial issues covered by CITES.

Willem Wijnstekers

Willem Wijnstekers Secretary-General, CITES

Willem Wouter Wijnstekers was appointed Secretary-General of CITES on 29 January 1999. Mr Wijnstekers became responsible for wildlife trade legislation in the European Commission's Directorate General for the Environment, Nuclear Safety and Civil Protection, in 1978 after 10 years working in the private sector and four in the Dutch administration. He is the author the widely acclaimed The Evolution of CITES.


A collaboration between authorities and civil society

CITES is not a treaty to ban all wildlife trade. Nor does it cover all endangered species. In fact, a recent edition of the CITES newsletter listed 10 common misunderstandings about CITES and looked at ways to explain simply what the role of this organization administered by UNEP actually is.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. It is therefore both a trade and a conservation instrument of international law.

Today, it covers more than 30,000 species of animals and plants, whether they are traded as live specimens, fur coats or dried herbs. Roughly 5,000 species of animals and 28,000 species of plants are protected by CITES against over-exploitation. The total international trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year and involves more than 250 million plants and animals.

CITES was born through a collaboration and alliance between states and civil society organizations. It was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at a meeting of members of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The text of the Convention was finally agreed at a meeting of representatives of 80 countries in Washington DC on 3 March 1973, and CITES entered into force on 1 July 1975.

Today, in our Strategic Vision, Goal 5 is to «increase cooperation and conclude strategic alliances with international stakeholders». The secretariat has entered into a number of general cooperation agreements with other organizations and receives funds from a range of organizations to cover many of its activities.

For the meeting of the Conference of Parties to CITES (CoP14) to be held next June in the Hague, the Netherlands, the CITES Secretariat has received some 40 new government proposals for amending the trade rules, with a greater number of those dealing with high-value species from the oceans and forests than at previous meetings. This trend confirms that many governments now view CITES as a vital tool for safeguarding the ecological and commercial future of key fisheries and timber-producing forests.

One issue that comes regularly before the CITES Conference illustrates partnership among states and civil society organizations at work. CITES banned the international commercial ivory trade in 1989. In 1997, recognizing that some southern African elephant populations were healthy and well-managed, it permitted Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to make a one-off sale of 50 tonnes of ivory to Japan. The sales took place in 1999 and amounted to some USD 5 million. In 2002, CITES agreed in principle to allow a second sale, of 60 tonnes, from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

The condition was that a CITES program of monitoring illegal killing of elephants (MIKE) was able to establish up-to-date and comprehensive data on elephant populations and a baseline against which any changes in the rate of illegal killings could be measured with a high degree of confidence.

In addition, the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), a comprehensive information system to track illegal trade in ivory and other elephant products, provides information to the Parties on seizures and trends in illegal trade. ETIS is managed by TRAFFIC, a joint program of IUCN and WWF, on behalf of the CITES Parties. Both MIKE and ETIS provide treaty parties with information with which to make informed CITES decisions.

However in 2006 the CITES Standing Committee determined that the MIKE baseline data were not sufficiently complete yet and that sales could not go forward. The issue was slated to be examined again at the next meeting of the Committee just before CoP14. CITES has also scheduled a meeting of the African elephant range states before proposals are discussed by the conference. Efforts to establish a scientific base for decisions are still incomplete, but the principle of providing a scientific background to wildlife trade decisions lies at the heart of CITES concerns.

CITES today sets rules for international trade in more than 30,000 species of animals and plants.

At the retail end, too, any informed decision to purchase or not wild animals or plants or items made from them requires the public to have accurate information on whether buying or possessing the specimen or product in question is legal, and on what the conservation impact is. All too often, the popular «don't buy» campaigns do not adequately distinguish between illegal and legal trade.

Wildlife trade is not necessarily a threat to the survival of species. Over 95% of the global trade in CITES specimens involves species that are not threatened with extinction and that may be traded internationally for commercial purposes.

Yet brochures on wildlife trade are often so general that people believe that all trade in specimens such as parrots, crocodile handbags or ivory jewelry is prohibited. To explain why that is not the case and in which cases trade is allowed goes well beyond the amount of text that a brochure can contain. That is why, in the runup to the 2007 CoP, we devoted an issue of our newsletter CITES World to correcting popular misconceptions and looking at the difficulties and experiences of our national partners in promoting CITES amongst their citizens.