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COP on: new species added to trade rules
(L to R): Irish delegation Orlando Verrecchia, Dr Noeleen Smyth, and Rosanna Kearns at the CITES COP

13 Apr 2023 / environment Print

COP on: new species added to trade rules

In 2022, we heard a lot about COPs – both climate and biodiversity COPs – that were delayed due to the impact of COVID-19, and were eventually held at the end of last year, writes Dr Noeleen Smyth.

COP is ‘Conference of the Parties’, and is a serious meeting of all the countries that have signed up to a particular global agreement.

COPs on bio-diversity and climate change had very lofty aspirations and hard-won agreed outcomes, though many feared that the fact that the decisions made were watered down by the need for consensus, and not legally binding, meant that many actions would not be implemented.

Wildlife-trade convention

One UN convention with ‘teeth’, and legally binding outcomes that came into force 90 days after the meeting, was the wildlife-trade convention.

This convention is also known as CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) or the Washington Convention.

The aim of this agreement is to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of any species of plant or animal in the wild.

It focuses on plants and animals that are both rare and in trade. This convention now appears to have been well ahead of its time, with advanced thinking and foresight on species conservation.

It was first agreed in Washington by 80 parties on the 3 March 1973, and this year it celebrated its 50th birthday as one of the oldest UN conventions.

Initially, it focused on mega-fauna, such as tigers and elephants, but as the world has developed and changed over the years, the number of endangered species in trade has now grown exponentially.

Those species being harvested from the wild face additional challenges of habitat loss and climate change.

Ireland chaired the EU Plants and Trees working group, and also attended the world wildlife (CITES) COP held in Panama from the 14 to 25 November 2022.

Why do we trade in endangered species?

Many of the species listed in the CITES appendices are those found in developing countries, and sustainable trade can also bring sustainable livelihoods for those who trade in them, helping to fulfil the ultimate aims of the United National Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

CITES is one of the few conventions that fully embraces sustainability through a rigorous series of checks and balances for the particular species in trade with its system of permits.

In order for a species to be traded across an international border, a legal declaration of ‘non-detriment’ (NDF) to the survival of the species in the wild is required, along with a ‘legal-acquisition finding’ (LAF), which states that no laws were broken in its acquisition.

These are determined by the exporting country and checked by the importing country.

NDFs and LAFs form the basis for the issuance of a CITES export permit, a legal document that accompanies the specimen to its destination, where it is checked by customs and border staff and recorded as a trade transaction.

Formal annual declaration of export and imports permits issued for each species are made by each country or party to the convention to the CITES secretariat based in Geneva, which publishes this data in the CITES trade database.

CITES appendices

Species are listed in three different CITES appendices, based on conservation concerns. Species listed in Appendix I are allowed in trade only for conservation purposes, such as international exchanges between agencies such as zoos and botanic gardens for research and conservation breeding programmes.

Some Irish examples include white-tailed sea eagle introductions, and the elephant-breeding programme at Dublin Zoo.

Species listed in Appendix II are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but data show that trade is having an impact on their population numbers in the wild, and global trade in the species needs to be regulated in order to ensure that the species survives.

97% of species listed on CITES are listed in Appendix II. Common examples include African cherry, which is used to treat prostate cancer, and blue orchid oil, which is found in cosmetics.

The conservation ‘watch-list’, Appendix III, allows countries to list any of their own species to monitor the impact of international trade on the species.

Anyone importing these species needs to inform the country of origin through an ‘import notification’.

At the start of CITES in 1973, there were around 300 species listed; current estimates are that more than 38,700 species are listed – including 5,950 animals and 32,800 plants.

The full list of species can be found on a dedicated website (under the 'Implementation' tab) that is updated and managed by the UN Environment Programme, based at the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) in Cambridge.

The listing also includes all the products that can be derived from the animals and plants listed. This includes foods, medicines, pets, leather goods, timber, furniture, musical instruments, fragrances, cosmetics, with all parts (such as ivory) or derivatives (such as medicines made from animals or plants) legally covered.

Many thousands of these species and their parts are traded internationally each day, and this trade is estimated to be worth over US $220 billion.

Asia and Europe are the top importing and exporting regions, with trade estimates in CITES-listed species from 2011-2020 estimated at 1.26 billion plant trades and 82 million animal trades (CITES Secretariat 2022).

CITES in the EU

The EU operates stricter domestic measures for species listed on the CITES appendices and, sometimes confusingly, operates four levels of CITES listings called ‘annexes’.

While the terminology change between ‘annex’ and ‘appendix’ can be a little confusing, CITES Appendix I roughly translates as EU Annex A, CITES Appendix II to EU Annex B, and CITES Appendix III to EU Annex C.

The EU has an additional Annex D as a watch-list to gather trade data on species of conservation concern.

The EU also requires both export and import permits to be issued for EU Annex B/CITES Appendix II species. The NDF and LAF has to be made by both the EU and the exporting country.

CITES in Ireland

In Ireland, the Wildlife Act 1976 and the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 form the primary legislation for protection of wildlife, and these acts also implement various European rules – including the Wildlife Trade Regulations or CITES regulations.

After every CITES COP, the list of species on the EU Basic Regulation Council Regulation [EC] No 338/97 on the protection of species of wild fauna and flora is updated, with species being uplisted, downlisted or added for the first time.

For a short while, the EU (and Ireland as a member state) exists in a strange limbo where the CITES rules apply 90 days after the CITES COP (23 February 2023), but the matching EU regulation has to go through a series of formalities – including being published in the official journal of the European Union – before it can come legally into effect (the new regulation is due to be officially published soon).

CITES implementation and management is carried out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which has a dedicated CITES Management Authority that issues import and export permits.

Scientific and policy advice, and the NDF, are provided by the CITES Scientific Authority, based at Environmental Sustainable Resource Management and Horticulture in the School of Agriculture and Food Science in University College Dublin.

What new species were listed at CITES COP 19?

CITES COPS are huge events, with over 3,000 delegates and media attending. NGOs (non-governmental organisations) can attend the meetings, but cannot vote.

What makes CITES different to other conventions is that, if no consensus is reached, the species listing goes to a vote and needs a two-thirds majority. More than 600 species were up for discussion in 52 proposals at CITES COP 19.

The animal-listing proposals focused on a wide variety of wild species, ranging from large animals, such as hippos, to proposals on tiny prairie dogs.

There were four proposals on various bird species, three on crocodiles, seven on gecko and lizards, two on snakes, 12 on turtles, two on frogs (including glass and leaf frogs), two on large sharks, one on freshwater stingrays, two on fish, and one on cryptic sea cucumbers.

The proposal to include the iconic hippo (hippopotamus amphibus) in Appendix I was rejected by parties, as global trade was not found to be the main threat to the survival of the animal in the wild.

Global pet trade was, however, found to be concerning for glass and leaf frogs, which were included in Appendix II for the first time.

A huge trade in fins and meat were found to be having a detrimental effect on hammerhead sharks and requiem sharks.

High-value global consumption of the unusual ‘Beche de mer’, or sea cucumbers, was found to be a concern, with heavy exploitation of these species for food, coupled with their low reproduction and slow maturity rates.

These were included in Appendix II for the first time.

Decking and furniture

Plant-listing proposals are increasingly focused on timber-producing species. There were ten proposals to regulate trade in more than 160 timber and tree species, one on a medicinal plant, and two on regulating trade in orchids found in cosmetics from artificially propagated sources.

The consumption of wood for decking and furniture is causing extinction concern for some species. Trumpet trees, which consist of 113 species from Central and South America, are commonly used for the decking trade in the EU and US.

Paduk/Padouk, another African timber common in trade, was found to be extremely vulnerable to over-harvesting and in high international demand.

African mahogany species of hardwood timber were found to be increasingly in demand, and popular in international trade as a substitute for American mahogany, which is no longer commercially available.

One Irish species made the CITES listings this year: roseroot (rhodiola rosea, also known as sedum rosea), a native cliff species found on our Atlantic coastal cliffs.

While it is not currently exploited or used in Ireland, it is imported from Asia as finished product in most Irish chemists and health-food stores. The finished product is not regulated, but the raw material is.

CITES, a convention that started out focused on very niche and rare species in trade, is now starting to include species we regularly encounter in our daily lives as pets, furniture, cosmetics and medicine.

Our footprint or ‘hoofprint’ is growing, with more than eight billion of us consuming more and more species that are being brought into trade regulation under CITES.

More information on all aspects of CITES can be found at:

Dr Noeleen Smyth is an Assistant Professor in Environmental and Sustainable Horticulture in Environment and Sustainable Resource Management in the School of Agriculture and Food Science in UCD. She acts as the CITES Scientific Authority for Ireland, and chaired the EU Plants and Trees working group for CITES COP 19.

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