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Is CITES protecting wildlife?

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IWMC is pleased to be allowed to publish Dr. Nikolas Sellheim’s review of an exciting new book by Dr. Tanya Wyatt that lifts the lid on how CITES really works. The conclusions of the book and the reviewer (which differ) are controversial, but the research is solid and their competing views on its meaning cannot be ignored.

Book review by Nikolas Sellheim

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which was adopted in 1973 and entered into force two years later, has been hailed as one of the most successful multilateral conservation treaties in the world. This is also because it now has a membership of 183, which is one of the most globally ratified environmental treaties worldwide. 

While this may be so, in her study Is CITES Protecting Wildlife? Assessing Implementation and Compliance, Tanya Wyatt paints a significantly different picture. However, one might expect an answer to the rather provocative question, which already du Plessis has shown to be quite relevant, as he considered the international wildlife trade hardly the only reason for population decline (Second chapter, here). But let’s take one step at a time. 

In seven chapters, Wyatt outlines the biodiversity crisis (Chapter 1), how CITES works (Chapter 2), her applied methodology (Chapter 3), implementation issues (Chapter 4), compliance issues (Chapter 5), lessons learned from the case studies and best practices (Chapter 6), and her thoughts on the future (Chapter 7). For those familiar with the overall problems of biodiversity loss as well as international conservation law, chapters 1 and 2 do not necessarily provide much new information, but are, of course, useful to understand the raison d’être of the book. For me, the first really intriguing chapter was Chapter 3 on the applied methodology. Here it becomes clear how one research question (i.e. how are CITES provisions implemented and complied with in CITES member states) generates a wealth of data, but, at the same time, confronts the eager researcher with unforeseen difficulties. 

A key component of Wyatt’s work is the legislative content analysis of CITES parties’ legislation and the submitted biennial reports on implementation of the convention. Her incredibly useful and, to my knowledge, unique index of CITES legislation is an extremely well-research overview of the differences in adapting CITES to national law. The rough data can be downloaded from Wyatt’s website here and I can only applaud and thank the author (and her assistants) for, first, carrying out this arduous task and, second, for making it available for all those interested on her website. The analysis of this content is presented in Chapter 4. 

But sticking to the methodology, Wyatt also makes use of the Delphi iterative survey in order to get the parties’ view on implementation and compliance. This method appears to be quite useful to consider implementation and compliance beyond the parties’ preferences. But while she initially sent out 664 emails to conduct the first round of the survey, she immediately received 113 error messages. In the end, merely 32 people completed the entire three rounds. Inevitably, this provides a thinner source of information that the expected 40. This notwithstanding, the results of this survey are skilfully weaved into the narrative of the book and I found them a fascinating to the overall findings.

The third leg of the methodology are structured and semi-structured interviews with experts on three case studies – Canada, Indonesia and South Africa. These case studies emerged out of the findings of the survey and serve to represent the overall problem/successes concerning implementation and compliance. This means that interviews only start to play a more visible role in Chapter 6. 

Chapter 4 thus delves into the legislative content analysis. Here it becomes abundantly clear that implementation and compliance differ significantly amongst CITES parties. For instance, while the convention requires its parties to designate a Scientific Authority as well as a Management Authority, it is not clear how these are to position themselves towards each other. In addition, while some states even have an Enforcement Authority, others don’t have any authority at all (see p. 53, and especially Table 4.1). Also, while some parties consider ‘wildlife’ to include all species on the Appendices of CITES, others merely regard it as species concerning in its respective jurisdiction or at least passing through it. Similarly, penalisation differs from country to country: while some have very deterrent penalties in place (e.g. several years in prison), others are rather lax in that regard. And lastly, while repatriation of confiscated wildlife to their respective countries of origin is the recommended option, merely six parties have indicated that they have succeeded in doing so. These findings quite impressively show how differently the convention is implemented and complied to, begging ever more the question of whether or not it can in fact be considered a success story. 

While CITES has been in force for now 46 years, there has been rather little research on its implementation. As Wyatt rightly points out, in previous research (here or here) it has most commonly been pointed out that a lack of human and financial resources leads to compliance problems. However, in Wyatt’s view and based on her findings, there are difficulties – actions that are possible/doable, but difficult to complete – and there are constraints – outside forces, rendering the action pretty much impossible to complete. I am not entirely convinced that this distinction is really necessary, because in both instances (i.e. the greatest difficulty and the greatest constraint) are in fact lack of financial and human resources. Whether or not a proposed action might be doable or renders it impossible is, in my view, rather unnecessary to ask, because either way they are not implemented. Here it would have been good to ask why they are not implemented. Because obviously something else was more important (from a human and financial resource perspective) that providing resources for CITES implementation (leaving out corruption).

Another major part in Wyatt’s book deals with compliance (Chapter 5) – as the title suggests. While compliance to a convention can be considered from multiple angles, Wyatt concentrates on the reporting requirements of the parties. For without reporting, the entire CITES system, particularly with regard to the conservation status of a species vis-à-vis the trade conducted in it, becomes rather obsolete. As per the provisions of the convention, parties are required to submit two different reports: first, the annual report on issued certificates, amounts of trade in CITES-listed species, the countries with which this trade was conducted and some other issues. With this comes a review on significant trade in CITES species; second, the biennial report on implementation of the convention, meaning the legislative, administrative and regulatory responses in order to effectively implement CITES. 

In this very revealing chapter, the author demonstrates that despite the importance of reporting – also in order to maintain the CITES trade database – CITES parties have shown either inertia or even a reluctance to comply with this requirement. This has led to a number of trade suspensions in Appendix II-listed species as a means to motivate reporting. Currently, Afghanistan, Djibouti and Grenada have trade in all Appendix II-species suspended because of their consistent failure to report (see p. 85). Due to their failure to report on the Review of Significant Trade – a crucial reporting mechanism – 19 parties (and Haiti as one non-party), meaning more than 10% of CITES members have trade suspensions in place. In light of the reputation of CITES as a manifestation of good environmental practice, this number appears rather high indeed, begging the question on the effectiveness of this regime. 

The level is even worse in regard to biennial implementation reports. Here, Wyatt shows that merely 15 parties (i.e. 8%) have submitted all of the biennial reports whereas 37% have never submitted any since 2003. Again, this makes it difficult to see why and how CITES is considered to be so successful even though this reporting requirement is necessary to see how the convention is implemented globally. However, it is especially states with smaller human and financial resources at their disposal which, first, have legislation in place that does not correspond to CITES requirements and, second, which are therefore not necessarily willing to report on them (while having to report to dozens of other international treaties). In order to tackle this issue, states that have a good rate of implementation should hold non-compliant states accountable by not importing from them. Moreover, ‘shaming’ should take place to increase pressure on these states. This could, for instance, occur via a report on non-compliance by the Secretariat.

Another issue that raises concern is that of enforcement and the enforcement of the enforcement via the CITES Secretariat. While enforcement is not part of the convention itself, without it, its efficacy obviously becomes questionable. While the respondents to Wyatt’s survey indicated that the enforcement of national legislation through the respective national bodies should range very high, this is rather difficult to achieve since more than 40 parties do not have any legislation in place that deals with enforcement of rules or their violation. Second, the CITES Secretariat does not have the resources available to monitor enforcement efforts while, as shown above, not many parties actually report on their implementation and compliance. Therefore, how should the Secretariat be able to monitor this? 

To this end, it becomes even more important to focus on implementation and compliance concerning reporting while “sanctions can be reserved for the worst cases of non-compliance” (p. 96). The chapter closes with the recommendation that the Secretariat should assist parties in their reporting requirements through direct assistance or working groups while also parties should motivate each other to improve implementation and compliance in order to make the convention significantly more effective. 

Chapter 6 finally deals with the best practices learnt from the case studies, i.e. Canada, South Africa and Indonesia, and draws from the expert interviews the author conducted. Here it becomes clear that the different authorities implementing CITES (the Scientific Authority, the Management Authority, and in some cases the Enforcement Authority) should closely cooperate, but maintain their independence in order not to be able to influence each other. In regard to prohibition, both the requirement for import and export permits for all CITES species might be a way forward while concerning penalisation, agreement existed that fines should in part be used to flow back into conservation projects or deal with issues regarding confiscation. Here, fines and assets could be used to repatriate animals back to their places of origin or to finance their housing in nurseries. A clear outcome, however, was that seized specimens cannot not be resold in order to take away motivation to earn money for corrupt enforcement personnel. 

Another clear example of a best practice (or lack thereof) are the different interpretations of the term ‘wildlife’. I deem it necessary to reproduce table 6.1 from page 103 which shows how differently the term is applied in the legislation, inevitably leading to implementation problems.

Definition CodeCount of Definition
Animal and specimen1
Animals and birds1
Animals and plants31
Animals, plants, birds1
Biodiversity / Biological diversity3
Fauna and flora31
Living resources (animals and plants)1
Natural resources2
Wild animals2
Wild species (animal and plant)1
Wildlife 26
Wildlife and biodiversity1
Wildlife and fish2
Wildlife and forestry1
Wildlife and plants1
Wildlife and timber1
Wildlife, forestry and fisheries3
Wildlife, genetic resources, forests, fisheries1
Not able to access text9

Table 6.1: Overall definitions of wildlife © Tanya Wyatt, p. 103

This table alone reveals a fundamental problem concerning the implementation of CITES: national divergences, particularly since Wyatt also shows that the term ‘wildlife’ does not even necessarily include plants or fish – the latter of which comprises the greatest amount of wildlife trade in the world. In light of this, the national permit systems show significant differences. Therefore, a lesson learnt from the analysis is the urgent need to streamline the definition of wildlife across CITES-relevant national legislation. This would enable a better permit system, which itself should be primarily done electronically in order to ensure transparency. 

Wyatt then moves on to the three case studies, Canada, South Africa and Indonesia. While these are geographically and politically different, they are nevertheless considered to have legislation in place to effectively implement CITES. However, while there are gaps, such as breeding in Indonesia or decentralised legislation in South Africa, a best practice that can be inferred from these countries is, for instance, the inclusive approach concerning local and indigenous communities. 

The last section of the chapter comprises Wyatt’s thoughts on improving CITES, based on the expert interviews and her survey. She remarks that the scientific approach should stand at the core of CITES decision-making. She therefore suggests that “science needs to be applied to all species and not just terrestrial vertebrates” (p. 115). In how far this would collide with the CITES approach to trade in whales is not further elaborated upon. After all, those whales that are protected under the moratorium of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) are listed on Appendix I and parties are not to issue import or export permits for these species (here). 

Finally, Wyatt reiterates the importance to hold non-compliant parties publicly accountable. She also suggests to include more targeted professionals in the decision-making process at the Conferences of the Parties, such as enforcement officers or environmental lawyers. Lastly, she recommends a modernisation of CITES. This could occur through automatic listing once a certain threshold has been met (a “near-automated pathway” was also suggested by Frank & Wilcove [here], but has thus far not been considered in earnest) or through mechanisms that hold individuals within companies/bodies accountable. She explicitly mentions The Gambia’s approach in this regards, whose legislation aims at making individual managers responsible. In fact, this is common practice in Germany as well. The recent emissions-scandal concerning Volkswagen is a telling example in this regard. 

While the author also deals with lessons learnt from other environmental treaties, she fails to explicitly establish the link between CITES and the IWC. On the one hand, CITES is starting to experience the same rifts concerning conservation vs. sustainable use that have paralysed the IWC. On the other hand, if science was to steer decision-making, the automatic listing of the IWC-species on the CITES Appendices due to the close link between these two bodies would be unjustified since the population status of some of these whale species would not necessitate an Appendix-listing.

In order to make CITES more timely, Wyatt also discusses the option of either drafting a new wildlife crime convention or adding a fourth protocol on wildlife crime to the UN Convention Against Transnational Crime (UNTOC). Both have their merits, especially since CITES is not an environmental law, but a trade treaty (as also Wyatt highlights again). Either way, linking biodiversity protection with international crime has also occurred in the context of making ecocide an international crime under the International Criminal Court (ICC) (here). Since there is no way for CITES to police its implementation, not only the link to INTERPOL, but also the link to other international crime-combatting bodies appears reasonable. I dare say that it might only be a matter of time until a stronger crime-based focus might appear in other bodies as well. 

I was very happy to see also other matters being picked up by the author. First and foremost, her, albeit rather brief, discussions on the North/South dichotomy, the political tensions within CITES and the ethics of wildlife trading are issues that are fundamentally important when discussing the functioning of the convention. Of course, they are not necessarily linked to implementation and compliance, but they show how complex of a body CITES really is. For the purposes of this blog, particularly the discussion on the involvement of local communities – for instance via the down-voted proposal to establish a Rural Communities Committee at CoP18 – triggered my interest. Here, two interviewees were quoted that spoke for and against the consideration of local interests in the listings-process. However, when focusing primarily on science, this issue should not matter, because it is, after all, science and not the type of use which should steer decision-making. This should become very clear in both ‘camps’: when making use of scientific arguments, other arguments might be weakened. 

In light of the above, does CITES protect wildlife? Unfortunately, Wyatt does not answer this question. She repeatedly mentions that CITES does have merit, but not whether it actually is protecting wildlife. A discussion of this question, given that this is the title of the book, would be beneficial. But this is probably the only more fundamental criticism I have. For in conclusion I can say that this book is an extremely valuable contribution to the CITES literature and is a must-have addition to studies on implementation and compliance. I think that scholars and practitioners alike can draw information out of this book that advance their understanding of this complex regime. 

The author’s Twitter account is: @DrTWyatt

Dr Wyatt’s website:

Bibliographic information of the reviewed version: 

Wyatt, Tanya. (2021). Is CITES Protecting Wildlife? Assessing Implementation and Compliance. Abingdon: Routledge, 178pp, paperback, ISBN: 978-0-367-44128-9, £34,99.

Dr. Nikolas Sellheim blogs at

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