Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

CITES: A historic treaty protecting endangered species turns 50. Is it still an effective tool?

Delegates attend the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) on the opening day of the World Wildlife Conference  CITES CoP19 at the Convention Center in Panama City on November 14, 2022. - The trade in shark fins, turtles, and other threatened species will come under scrutiny at a global wildlife summit in Panama, from November 14 to 25, 2022, that will also focus on the spread of diseases such as Covid-19. Conservation experts and representatives of more than 180 nations will gather to study 52 proposals aimed at modifying protection levels set by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. (Photo by Luis ACOSTA / AFP) (Photo by LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images)
Delegates attend the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) on the opening day of the World Wildlife Conference CITES CoP19 at the Convention Center in Panama City on November 14, 2022. - The trade in shark fins, turtles, and other threatened species will come under scrutiny at a global wildlife summit in Panama, from November 14 to 25, 2022, that will also focus on the spread of diseases such as Covid-19. Conservation experts and representatives of more than 180 nations will gather to study 52 proposals aimed at modifying protection levels set by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. (Photo by Luis ACOSTA / AFP) (Photo by LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images)

A half century ago, the international community came together to sign an historic environmental treaty, called CITES.

It’s meant to protect 40,000 wildlife species by regulating trade.

50 years later, the CITES agreement has never been updated, even as species go extinct faster than ever.

Why is there no global interest in updating CITES, even as extinction rates are going up?

“CITES wasn’t designed to deal with wildlife trafficking. It’s a 50-year-old trade related, not a crime related convention,” John Scanlon says.

Today, On Point: A historic treaty protecting endangered species turns 50. Is it still an effective tool?


Tanya Sanerib, international legal director and senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

John Scanlon, CEO, Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation. Chair of the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime. Chair of the UK Government’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund. He served as secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) from 2010-2018.

Also Featured

Barbara Taylor, conservation biologist who’s studied vaquitas for 30 years.

Fred Bercovitch, comparative wildlife biologist who’s spent the last 20 years studying giraffes.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Dip a hydrophone in the warm waters of the Gulf of California, just off Mexico. And if you’re extremely lucky, you might hear this:


BARBARA TAYLOR: Vaquitas are a very small porpoise that is very beautifully colored. It has a lovely eyepatch and sort of black lips. It sort of has a goth look to it.

CHAKRABARTI: Barbara Taylor just retired as a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and she’s been studying the vaquita porpoise for decades. And yes, those were the echolocation clicks of the vaquita you just heard. The vaquita have lived in the northern waters of the Gulf of California for 3 million years, but humans didn’t discover them until 1958.

But then from 1997 to 2005, the known vaquita population plummeted by more than 90%, forcing the vaquita porpoise into the critically endangered status on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. This week, Taylor announced the results of the most recent Vaquita Population Survey.

The survey estimates that there may be between 10 to 13 vaquitas still alive. But in the often-heartbreaking work of wildlife conservation, where successes and failures can be measured by the sighting of a single animal, Taylor and her team consider that 10 to 13 number good news for the vaquita.

Because it’s roughly the same number of vaquitas that were observed in previous surveys. So for a critically endangered animal, that’s at least a temporary win. But how long can the vaquita numbers remain stable? Human beings are causing their decline, of course, but not directly in this case. We do not hunt the vaquita. Instead, humans fish for a different animal. The totoaba.

TAYLOR: The totoaba is a very large fish, a little bit larger than the vaquitas themselves, actually. And they too, are only found in the Gulf of California. And they come up right to where vaquitas are to spawn every winter. And that makes them easy target for fisheries.

CHAKRABARTI: The totoaba fisheries are illegal. However, because the fish’s swim bladder is highly coveted in China for its supposed medicinal properties, the illegal market for the totoaba is lucrative and thriving. And that is what’s threatening the vaquita porpoise, which get caught and die in the nets used to catch the totoaba.

TAYLOR: This black-market illegal wildlife trade took off very rapidly. The way that the fishermen first started fishing totoaba was by anchoring their gillnets to the bottom with no surface marker. They could use GPS now to find where their nets were, and so they were leaving these nets down there for the entire spawning season. And that was just a death sentence for vaquitas. And it was illegal. Because totoaba were the first fish that was listed under the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species, CITES.

CHAKRABARTI: Signed in 1973, the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species, or CITES, was a landmark global agreement that allowed the international community to protect threatened plants and animals via controls and prohibitions on the wildlife trade. You might have heard of some of CITES’ biggest successes, namely the ban on the ivory trade.

Well, in March of this year, CITES announced a set of sanctions on Mexico for its failure to stop the illegal totoaba trade. The sanctions would have prevented Mexico from legally exporting thousands of other animal products around the world. But just one month later, in April, CITES lifted the sanctions. By the time Barbara Taylor and her team were able to start their vaquita survey in May, they were able to get in closer to a designated zero tolerance area. It’s a 12 by 24-kilometer area that Taylor describes as the last vaquita stronghold. And she was surprised by what they found.

TAYLOR: The Navy put these concrete blocks with big steel hooks that stick out about ten feet out of the top that entangle nets into the zero-tolerance area. So in 2021, on our last day, there were 117 boats with enough gillnet to run, end to end, in this zero-tolerance area five times. I mean, it was a spiderweb of death, from the perspective of a vaquita. And the Navy put in these concrete blocks, and there’s been over a 90% reduction of vessels that are going into the zero-tolerance area. And, you know, it’s just an unmitigated success.

CHAKRABARTI: However, Barbara Taylor can’t say what led the Mexican Navy to place those concrete blocks in the zero-tolerance area. Is it because of years of international pressure? Is it because of those recent sanctions imposed by CITES for one month? Did they actually galvanize the Mexican government to do something? Taylor doesn’t think so. In fact, she looks at CITES as being wholly ineffective when it comes to protecting the vaquita porpoise.

TAYLOR: From my perspective as a vaquita conservationist, there’s been a lot of talk and not much action. When CITES first started seriously considering it … there were 30 vaquitas left and still nothing happening fast. Nothing happening fast enough to make a difference in conserving vaquitas.

So now we’re down to ten-ish. And we have been since 2018. And so now it’s 2023. If the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species is hoping to be effective in actually saving species, it’s moving too slowly to really be able to deal with the current ongoing biodiversity crisis.

CHAKRABARTI: CITES was once heralded as an international success story, but 50 years later, the wildlife extinction rate is as high as ever and the shape of the international wildlife trade has changed dramatically, leaving CITES unable to meaningfully stop the illegal trade in some of the world’s most endangered species.

So you’d expect the global community to be galvanized to update CITES for a new age. But some observers note that there’s almost no interest in doing that at all. Why?

CHAKRABARTI: Well, joining me now is Tanya Sanerib. She’s international legal director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, and she joins us from Seattle. Tanya, welcome to the show.

TANYA SANERIB: Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: So let’s talk more about the vaquita porpoise and what its story has to tell about the effectiveness of CITES. How does CITES view the porpoise’s status?

SANERIB: The same as everyone else. It’s a critically endangered species. I mean, we’re hovering around ten animals, right? I mean, this is the moment in time where you pull out all of the stops to try to save a species, because we don’t want to lose any of our biological diversity.

I think what’s really interesting, though, is when you look at the CITES agreement, it was designed to bring the international community together to address overexploitation of species through international trade. And so there is a lot of global work that happens collectively among different countries throughout the world. And so one of the things that’s always really tricky at CITES is this issue of sanctions.

It’s a unique agreement. Because it can actually sanction countries. And as we saw with Mexico, it can impose drastic sanctions. I mean, suspending trade in all CITES-listed species, that’s over 3,000 animals and plants from Mexico, including really lucrative products, things like crocodile skins, mahogany, cactus trade is huge for Mexico. As well as the pet trade, tarantulas, reptiles, everything that they trade in.

Taking that camaraderie and that work together to try to address this issue of international trade and then basically kicking someone out of the club and imposing sanctions. That’s really difficult for CITES parties to do. And those decisions are not made lightly. And unfortunately, even in situations like the vaquita, as we saw the numbers dwindle, as Barbara Taylor was saying, from 30 animals down to ten. CITES parties are still hemming and hawing, “Do we impose sanctions on Mexico or not?”

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, what’s interesting is that CITES was trying to protect the vaquita by also listing the totoaba. Because the totoaba are the target of the illegal trade, that was the tool by which the vaquita were ostensibly protected, as well. Is that right?

SANERIB: Absolutely. And totoaba are threatened in their own right. And they were originally protected under CITES because their numbers were diminishing, because international trade was a real threat to totoaba. And it’s in part because they are this really unique sort of prehistoric looking species with these swim bladders that are highly coveted in Asia.

And unfortunately, we’ve seen extinction of some of the species that originally were native to Asia that had these swim bladders. They were literally, you know, caught to extinction. And so now the demand for swim bladders has turned to other parts of the world, and that included the totoaba.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So we’ve got a minute to go before our first break, Tanya. You know, I take your point about it’s not that easy for countries to get together and use CITES to levy those heavy sanctions like they did on Mexico. But they only did so for one month. Do you have any analysis about why they lifted the sanctions in April, just four weeks after they had levied them?

SANERIB: Yeah, the reason sanctions were imposed is because Mexico did not have an adequate compliance plan. And what they did after the sanctions were imposed is they flew to Geneva and met with the CITES body to figure out what they needed to do to get the sanctions dropped.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And Mexico committed to doing those things?

SANERIB: Yes. And they’re great at committing on paper to doing the right thing. The question is always what happens on the water for the vaquita.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we are talking about the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, also known as CITES. It was created 50 years ago, back in 1973. And at that time heralded as a really innovative global agreement, a landmark one, in fact, to protect endangered species through the regulation of the international trade in those species.

But 50 years later, there are many questions about the effectiveness of CITES, and moreover, why the international community now isn’t showing much willingness at all to update CITES. Tanya Sanerib is with us today. She’s the international legal director and senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. And Tanya, I’m going to return back to what the story of the vaquita tells us in just a second.

But I wanted to just take a step back for context here, because I think it wouldn’t be an unreasonable presumption for most people if they said, well, you know, maybe in this day and age, the greatest threats to wildlife species are climate change and habitat loss. So maybe we shouldn’t worry about the international trade in those species so much. Is that true? Or is trade still a major part of what’s threatening these creatures?

SANERIB: Yeah. Unfortunately, exploitation, including international trade, is a major driver of species loss. We had U.N. scientists back in 2019 prepare a global biological assessment, and it was really eye-opening. Because they determined that exploitation is the primary driver for marine species loss, and the secondary driver, secondary to habitat loss, for terrestrial species.

And I think that was really surprising for a lot of people. Because we do tend to think of habitat loss, we tend to think of climate change. But in this window in time, before climate change really overtakes all the other drivers of extinctions, exploitation is really significant. And I think that’s important. Because it was the same thing in the 1960s and the early ’70s, which is what prompted the original text for CITES. And why countries around the world came together in 1973 to negotiate that text and to get the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species off the ground and running.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Excellent point. So a half century later, we should not let habitat loss totally overshadow how much exploitation and trade is driving the reduction in the number of species of organisms and so many different species. So then that returns us to the question of, Do we understand the various markets that are driving this exploitation? And is CITES equipped to do things about it?

So going back to the vaquita, I mean, obviously there are fishermen out there laying the nets, but who’s paying the fishermen, who’s really driving the illegal fishing of the totoaba?

SANERIB: Yeah. And this is where trade in international, highly coveted species, totoaba swim bladders, is so interesting and so fascinating. Because you have this significant demand in Asia for the swim bladders. And in part, some of that demand is the wealth. To show that you’re able to acquire this illegal animal part. And a lot of people stockpile it as a way of showing their wealth. It’s used in soups. It’s used for other means, as well.

But how do you address that demand? And that’s one of the things, to my mind, that I think is really critical about CITES, and why it’s such an important agreement. It was designed not just to deal with how we originally acquired those animals, how we exploit them, to put them into international trade, but also to bring in those consumer countries.

And for them to work not only on ensuring that those bans, so we have this commercial trade ban for totoaba that’s in place under CITES, to ensure that that’s enforced. But also, to do work such as demand reduction, to educate the public so they understand why we shouldn’t be using these swim bladders from totoaba. In part, because of the impacts that has on vaquita.

CHAKRABARTI: We’ll talk about the consumer countries a little bit later in the show, but I want to start really painting the picture of the syndicates around the world that are very active. These are illegal markets we’re talking about, right? So, in Mexico, is it cartels?

SANERIB: Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: Tell me more.

SANERIB: Yeah. And, you know, I think stepping back, if you look globally at crime. Obviously trafficking and drugs, trafficking and guns, trafficking and people are huge problems. But wildlife trafficking. So that’s illegal wildlife trade, is among the top four criminal activities that happens globally. And that’s because it’s really lucrative. Whether you’re looking at something like a totoaba swim bladder, or the example I think everyone’s mind goes to when you talk about international trade is elephant ivory.

And while we have a commercial ivory ban in place, there’s still a black market for the ivory trade. And in part, that is because when you look at seized shipments, you see not just, you know, elephant ivory or totoaba swim bladders, but oftentimes you will see them showing up with guns. You’ll see them showing up with drugs. You’ll see them showing up with other contraband activities. And that is because we have these criminal syndicate systems that are trafficking and all of those four main arenas and those things that are highly coveted, even though they’re illegal.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So oftentimes it’s the same criminal syndicates, or the same cartels that are doing the drugs and wildlife trade at the same time.

SANERIB: Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: Tanya, hang on here for a second, because I want to bring into the conversation John Scanlon. He served as secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) from 2010-2018. He’s now CEO of the Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation and chair of the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime. And he joins us from Geneva, Switzerland. John Scanlon, welcome to On Point.

JOHN SCANLON: Thanks for inviting me.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, tell us more about how you see sort of this cartel or criminal syndicate activity. How big of a factor is it in the current flow of trade in wildlife around the world?

SCANLON: Right. Thanks. I think we need to draw a distinction between legal, regulated trade, and that’s what CITES deals with, as well. And there’s around $11 billion of regulated trade each year. And what we’ve been talking about so far today, which is wildlife trafficking. That is wildlife being traded across international borders illegally. Now, CITES was set up to regulate international trade in wild animals and plants, or those that are listed under the convention to ensure that trade does not threaten the survival of the species.

Now, what we’ve seen over the years is that there is a massive amount of wildlife trafficking, both animals and plants, and depends how you calculate it. But if you look at all wild animals and plants being trafficked, including timber and fish species, including species protected under CITES and those not protected under CITES, you’re looking at a value of around $200 billion a year. But if you look at the impact on ecosystems, the World Bank says the value of the impact of this wildlife trafficking is between $1 to $2 trillion per year, and it is driven by transnational organized crime as Tanya has indicated.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, I’m a little confused by the numbers. So, you said that the overall value of the trade was $200 billion, but the impact on ecosystems was about $1 billion.

SCANLON: Yeah, $1 to $2 trillion.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, trillion. I got it. Okay.

SCANLON: Probably the Australian accent. So, it’s the billion in terms of the value of the contraband, but that’s probably not the best figure to look at. You look at, What is the environmental harm caused here? That’s between $1 to $2 trillion, with a T. Because if you look at the impact that this trafficking has on ecosystems, including the ability to sequester carbon, including the ability to provide fresh water, the tourism opportunity, etc., the value of, or the impact, is much higher than just the value of the contraband itself.

CHAKRABARTI: Understood. Okay. So, let’s just take a quick look. I appreciate your distinction between the illegal and legal trade here of threatened species. Do you believe that CITES has been a success story then, in the regulation of legal trade? So that it protects or doesn’t further threaten endangered species?

SCANLON: So, everything’s relative. And as you pointed out, the convention is 50 years old, adopted in Washington, D.C. on March 3, 1973. I think we’re in a much better position today, 2023, in terms of regulated wildlife trade than we would otherwise be. I think many species have benefited from this regulation, including elephants that you’ve talked about, rhinos, big cats and many other species. But it’s an imperfect instrument as well. There are many flaws with the convention that still need to be addressed.

National legislation is not good enough. The national science is not good enough. We still have all paper permits that are open to fraudulent use, and the convention was never designed to deal with transnational organized crime. That is something that didn’t fit comfortably with the convention. But when I was secretary general, we were looking at a massive industrial scale wildlife trafficking. No one was picking it up. And we used the convention to draw attention to the scale, nature and consequences of these crimes.

But recognizing that a 50-year-old trade related convention was completely incapable of addressing the transnational organized crime that is driving wildlife trafficking, as Barbara and Tanya have talked about. In terms of the totoaba and the implications that it has for the vaquita, that’s not what CITES was designed to deal with. Transnational organized crime needs to be dealt with by the organizations and the conventions designed to tackle organized crime.

CHAKRABARTI: So law enforcement, essentially.

SCANLON: Law enforcement. And within the U.N. system, it’s the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime. It’s the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. This is where you have your best chance of tackling transnational crime, not through a trade related convention, albeit the trade related convention sets rules that criminals try and avoid.

But it’s not the right instrument and it’s not the right place to tackle transnational organized crime. And that’s where we need some significant reform to the international system, to change the international legal framework within which we’re operating. So we actually can have a concerted, coordinated global effort to bring these heinous crimes to an end.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, Tanya, let me turn back to you. Do you see a willingness, I should say, by the international community to make those changes in CITES? I introduced the show with a note that said it didn’t seem as if there’s a lot of global activity right now desiring to do that. Is that right or wrong?

SANERIB: I think that’s right. I don’t think that there is a lot of appetite to change the CITES convention text itself. I think that what John is talking to is basically an initiative in another sandbox, which I think is critically important. You know, we have these huge criminal networks. The ability to take those down is something that really could benefit from getting those criminal experts involved. But that doesn’t negate the need for us to turn back to CITES and say, what can we be doing in this space to improve circumstances for a lot of different wildlife?

To my mind, CITES has all the tools in the toolbox that we need. The problem is what CITES doesn’t have are the resources to be able to ensure that all of the countries that are party to the agreement get all of those tools in the toolbox. And that’s been one of the critical failures of the CITES agreement. It’s actually very well crafted. It ensures that we use the best science. It ensures that we have, you know, permitting. It sets the standard for designating those criminal activities.

We have that commercial trade ban that goes into effect. But where we really need help under CITES is where the rubber hits the road. So, making sure that the wildlife, the domestic laws are adequate to ensure that they comply with CITES. That we have people trained to enforce them on the ground. That’s really critical.

CHAKRABARTI: I hear what both of you were saying, but I also still see this bizarre unwillingness to even do, you know, sort of what seem to me to be no brainer updates to CITES, as you just outlined, Tanya. And there’s a story, John, that I’d love for you to tell us. Because it’s so clear after the pandemic now that there are all manner of threats, not just to the endangered species themselves, but to human beings, for when it comes to the legal and illegal trade of wildlife.

I mean, the threat of zoonotic transfer of pandemics from animals to human. We just got a historic lesson in that. As far as I understand, CITES does not address pandemic risk as a reason to regulate wildlife trade. You tried to get that changed. Can you tell me the story of that and if that was successful?

SCANLON: Yeah. So CITES was created to address the implications of international trade in wildlife from a conservation perspective, to ensure that any trade did not threaten the survival of the species. So, it’s about what’s the conservation impact [of] this trade. It wasn’t designed, and the convention doesn’t directly address the issues of the risk that such trade poses to human health. Through zoonotic diseases, for example, or to animal health, and the U.S. has experienced some quite significant implications for animal health, in particular for amphibians.

Nor is it designed to deal with things like illegal, invasive species. It was designed for the conservation impact in the source country. So what we’ve been saying in a post COVID-19 world is that it would be valuable to amend the CITES convention to say,  “Not only do you look at whether to list a species under the convention from a conservation perspective.”

But look to see whether a species in trade could pose a threat to human or animal health. And that when you issue a permit to authorize a trade, or choose not to issue the permit, you don’t just look at the conservation aspects, but you look at, “Would this trade pose a potential risk to human health or animal health?”

Now, we were promoting that, and we put forward specific changes that could be made to the convention text. It didn’t get any traction amongst the CITES parties or the large part of the CITES constituency. With some, but not all. And it’s because there’s always been a view within the CITES community that it likes the particular rather narrow focus of the convention, which is to look at species listed under the convention. And whether or not international trade is going to threaten the survival of that species. Looking at it from a conservation perspective.

CHAKRABARTI: Can I just jump in here for a second? It baffles me, though. Because there’s a great deal of overlap between the two, right? I’m thinking of the pangolin, for example. … There may be some zoonotic transfer from the pangolin, and at the same time we’re wiping them out everywhere. So why? … There is no traction, really? I mean, that surprises me, John.

SCANLON: No, there was no traction. And for example, the horseshoe bat is not listed under CITES, whereas you think international trade in the horseshoe bat, from a human animal health perspective, is something you want to keep an eye on. But it’s quite conservative in that sense. It’s a 50-year-old trade related convention, it has a particular constituency, but there’s more than one route to home. So, we have redirected our effort to the pandemics instrument being negotiated under the World Health Organization, and that’s where we are getting a lot of traction.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: We are talking about CITES. The international agreement created 50 years ago to regulate the trade of threatened species around the world and whether CITES, a half century later, is in dire need of updating, and if so, why that isn’t happening.

So, let’s take a moment to talk a little bit about how even though CITES may be rather long in the tooth, I might say, there still can be successes within the framework of the 50-year-old agreement. Fred Bercovitch is a comparative wildlife biologist who spent 20 years studying giraffes. The giraffe populations have declined by 40% over the last three decades, and one driver of that is the international trade in giraffe body parts.

BERCOVITCH: One of the things that’s done with giraffe after they’re killed is that taxonomists will stuff their neck in their head and make a trophy out of it. And you can buy one of those in the United States for like $6,000, $7,000. They can adorn your living room with the neck and the head of a giraffe. It may or may not have been killed legally, but people do import that. A lot of the bones are carved into knife handles that go to Saudi Arabia. The skin is also made, not just in the head, but they make things like chairs. They make jackets, cowboy boots.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, at a 2019 CITES conference in Geneva, six African nations, Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Senegal put forth a proposal that would add giraffes to one of the appendices of the CITES agreement. Now, that wouldn’t prohibit international trade in giraffes or their products, but it would ensure that the trade was legal. But getting the giraffes added wasn’t a slam dunk. Because many other Southern African countries were not in favor of the proposal. Fred Bercovitch made it his mission to convince countries to vote in favor, and he remembers the moment when he had a rare chance to speak to the entire assembly.

BERCOVITCH: What happened was the six countries, they get a chance to talk about why it should be listed. So they approached the chair in advance. And one of them said, Central African Republic, and said, I want to cede my 3 minutes to this giraffe expert who’s here. So let Fred Bercovitch talk for 3 minutes on the biology of giraffe and the conservation and why countries should support it. So the chair agreed.

So then when the time came for Proposal 5. And it’s introduced, then the chair recognizes the honorable delegate from the Central African Republic. And the honorable delegate says, With all your permission, chair, I would cede my time to this giraffe expert Fred Bercovitch. And he’ll spend the next 3 minutes explaining why. And then the chair says, Okay, go ahead.

CHAKRABARTI: Bercovitch explained that giraffes should be listed because there was documented illegal transboundary trade, and that giraffes essentially have zero population growth and are at risk of extinction. Listing them on CITES, he says, was basically a no brainer.

BERCOVITCH: And the closing line, in effect is that we lose absolutely nothing by listing them. All listing does is says we’re going to monitor the extent to which there’s an illegal killing, an international trafficking of giraffe. On the other hand, not listing them opens the door to more poaching. Bigger demand actually for giraffe, because now the countries know, hey, they’re not listed. The international community decided that it’s not important to list them, which means we can even kill more.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, the vote finally came in. And 83% of countries voted for listing the giraffe in Appendix II of CITES. Bercovitch says he didn’t do it completely alone. He had others there to give him feedback, but it is a proud moment for him.

BERCOVITCH: So there was a whole group of people, but I can tell you it’s one of the proudest moments in my background. Even though I didn’t work by myself, it was the epitome of how one person can make a difference. The fact that I was a single person and I had 3 minutes to convince 180 delegations to do something, and in the end they voted 83% in favor of what I said. I thought, boy, I must have done something right here.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, that’s Fred Bercovitch, a comparative wildlife biologist. So, Tanya and John, there still can be successes, even within the half-century old framework of CITES. We wanted to hear Bercovitch’s story in order to note that. But I’m still struck by how different the world is now geopolitically, than it was in 1973.

And this brings us back to something you were saying earlier, Tanya, about the consumer countries. For example, China today is quite different from China in 1973. So is it things like, you know, China’s rising power, its economic power, its even cultural and geopolitical power? Is that one of the things that prevents there from being a lot of global will to give CITES the kind of teeth it needs to really be super effective in the 21st century?

SANERIB: I think that’s a part of the problem. But I think we need to take a step further back and look at all of the consumer countries. You know, when we talk about international wildlife trade for us in the United States, we tend to think of China, we tend to think of Africa, but we ignore our own role in the wildlife trade. And so, for example, with giraffes, the U.S. is a major importer of giraffe bone for gun and knife handles. We import all sorts of giraffe products from, you know, pillows made out of giraffe skin. Giraffe bone carvings, sometimes actually of giraffes themselves.

U.S. consumers are very ignorant about the role that they play in the international wildlife trade. And fueling demand for species that is leading them down the path of extinction. And that’s one of the big problems that we have at CITES, is so much of the focus is on where animals are coming out of the wild. So those producing countries. And not enough attention being paid yes, to China, but also to the United States, to the EU and to Japan, those tend to be the four biggest consumer countries.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, John, what do you think about that?

SCANLON: Yeah. I think, again, we have to draw a distinction between legal regulated trade and illegal trade or wildlife trafficking, because the giraffe went onto Appendix II, which means it can lawfully be traded. But you have to get from the management authority, a permit which certifies that it’s been legally obtained, and that harvesting that number of animals or plants, in this case an animal, would not be detrimental to the survival of the species.

So that is about well-regulated trade. It doesn’t stop the trade. It says, now it’s under a regulatory regime and you have to report on those trades. So I think that legal regulated trade needs to be distinguished from wildlife trafficking. And there is a database within CITES. All CITES parties, every year, have to report, they’re obliged to report on all trade transactions, and there’s well over a million trade transactions reported under the convention. Every year they go into a database.

That’s about legal trade, or that should be legal. You’ve got wildlife trafficking, and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says 6,000 cites listed species are found in illegal trade every year across every continent, every continent, including in North and South America. But then it says there are millions of species not regulated under CITES that are also found in illegal trade. So I think we just have to desegregate this a little bit from legal trade. And the giraffe can lawfully be traded with the right permits. Because it’s on Appendix II. End wildlife trafficking, which is totally unlawful.

CHAKRABARTI: Let’s stick with the analysis on the legal trade for just a second, because one of the truths about any sort of international agreement is that most often the enforcement of those agreements and the execution of those agreements have to happen, obviously internally within the various member states. We rely on ourselves in the United States and on other countries to do the right thing.

But I also understand that the resources available within any country, even the United States, for the kind of technology, the kind of manpower that you need to even monitor the legal trade, is often a couple of guys in the back of an airport that might see half a million people pass through every year. I mean, is the oversight of the legal trade adequate, John?

SCANLON: No. So we’ve got some real weaknesses there. A number of countries, about half countries still don’t have legislation that fully meets the requirements of the convention. The ability to issue permits through management authorities in many countries is weak. And the science behind doing what’s called the non-detriment finding or the scientific finding, that this is a harvest that won’t threaten the survival, that science is weak in many places.

And for example, if you look at the sharks. The listing of sharks in the CITES is a success story, we’ve gone from almost none in 2010 to over 200 now. But it’s one thing to list and another thing to implement the listing, and that’s where the capacity to issue permits, do the science is weak. And we have a paper permitting system which is a 50-year-old permitting system that’s open to fraudulent use and corruption, whereas in 2023 we should have a fully automated system. But there are a lot of weaknesses there. And we have to, as you have just done, distinguish between bringing something under the trade controls of the convention and being able to effectively implement it. And there’s a big gap there.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, Tanya … it seems to me that there’s little doubt that some species could still fall into extinction, even though they are ostensibly protected by CITES. Given that that’s the case, if you could make changes to CITES, what would they be? What would you want them to be? Or is that just the wrong way of looking at it? Should we be trying to come up with entirely new agreements?

SANERIB: I actually think there’s a third option that would work wonderfully, and that is to ensure that we get the resources and the capacity to fully implement the CITES convention as it’s written. I see the biggest flaw is that it doesn’t meet its mandate, because of the lack of resources and capacity. You know, one key example is, you know, we are in the midst of a heart wrenching biodiversity crisis. U.N. scientists have said that we stand to lose a million species, many in the coming decades, unless we change business as usual.

Scientists have documented that CITES is decades behind in providing meaningful protection to probably hundreds, if not thousands of species that face extinction. So those are species that are maybe affected by trade. And yet we’ve seen this tenfold increase since 1975 and wildlife trade since CITES has entered into force. What we need is the resources to go to these countries who have agreed to do the work of CITES, to ensure that, again, that all those tools they have in the toolbox can be fully used.

You know, we were just talking about you have new listings of sharks. We had a phenomenal number of turtle species that got listed at the last CITES meeting. And you need the resources to be able to understand what’s happening with those populations to ensure that the regulated trade, when it is a regulated trade, isn’t detrimental to the survival of the species.

And then simultaneously, you also need those resources when you have these commercial trade bans, as you were noting at the ports, at the borders, to ensure that you’re not allowing things to leave your country that shouldn’t be leaving. And the same thing needs to happen to those importing countries, to ensure that they’re not bringing in species that have been put on that ‘Do not play’ list.

CHAKRABARTI: John, I’m going to give you the last word today. We have just got a couple of minutes left. Because I definitely hear both of you as saying maybe updating CITES itself is either unnecessary or quite frankly, it’s just not going to happen, because there isn’t enough international will. And then, John, you also mentioned that we have to keep distinguishing legal from the illegal trade.

But the illegal trade requires an increase in law enforcement type agreements around the world. So then, you know, if we couldn’t even get interest around improving tracking systems, or the kind of resources that Tanya was talking about after the global pandemic, what would it take for these CITES party countries to say, no, we are going to actually increase the very types of resources the Tanya’s talking about?

SCANLON: Thanks. And to tackle these issues, we have to look both within CITES and outside of CITES. So if we look at the public health risk of zoonotic diseases, we’re going to look outside CITES. And the new pandemics instrument being negotiated under the World Health Organization is where we’re going to look to for that. And we have some encouraging news in that regard. If we look at well-regulated wildlife trade, the legal trade, CITES does have all the tools for that.

And we need a scaled-up investment in that, because listing a species under the convention is not enough. You have to implement it. And we have a big funding gap there in terms of being able to do that effectively. When it comes to wildlife trafficking, CITES is the wrong instrument. It is not designed to tackle transnational organized crime or wildlife trafficking. It’s designed to regulate wildlife trade.

And in that regard, we need a new global international instrument to prevent and combat wildlife trafficking. We can do it under the U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. The president of Angola, of Costa Rica, of Gabon and Malawi have called for it, and it’s now in the U.N. being considered. This is what we need on the wildlife trafficking side. So desegregate it and look at it across those three pillars. If we push all three, we’ll get there in the end.

This article was originally published on

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit