An e-course on CITES presented by InforMEA, a project of the Multilateral Environmental Agreement (MEA) Information and Knowledge Management Initiative, provides an opportunity to learn and work through examples of the provisions of CITES.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is one of the oldest environmental agreements, and the first to enter into force on 1 July 1975. The world has changed significantly since the mid-1970’s, and CITES has evolved to suit. It is a unique Convention, standing “at the intersection between trade, environment, and development” according to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20 Outcome, ‘The Future We Want.’
The Convention’s provisions enable it to reflect current and mutable needs with regard to managing trade in endangered species, especially as threats from climate change, human consumption and production and habitat loss to species evolve. The provisions and purpose of CITES are now – as important as ever.
An e-course on CITES, based on the CITES Virtual College and presented by InforMEA, a project of the Multilateral Environmental Agreement (MEA) Information and Knowledge Management Initiative, provides an opportunity to learn and work through examples of the provisions of CITES. This policy update explores how improving understanding of CITES provisions can broadly support the Convention’s implementation, and also aid CITES’ efforts to engage partners from different arenas of global governance.
CITES is as much a trade agreement as an environmental convention. As the e-course explains through its careful walk through of the Convention’s appendices and non-detriment findings, CITES aims to ensure that trade in endangered wild animals and plants does not further threaten their survival. The Convention’s three appendices constitute lists of animals and plants for which trade is: permitted only in exceptional circumstances (Appendix I); trade must be controlled (Appendix II); or a country requests assistance in controlling trade (Appendix III). The e-course highlights non-detriment findings, which are obligations of states, and are at the heart of the Convention. These findings can be understood as a conclusion by a scientific authority that the export of specimens of a particular species will not negatively impact the survival of that species in the wild, and are required for the export of a specimen from a species listed in Appendix I or II.
Together, these lessons show how CITES protects endangered plants and animals from the negative impacts of trade. The recent CITES Animals Committee (AC) meeting also discussed the impacts of trade in species that are also threatened by other factors. Participants addressed the African lion, which struggles with habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict as well as polar bears, which are threatened partly by climate change-induced habitat loss. Data presented by Canada at the meeting showed that from its population of 16,000 polar bears, 352 are harvested annually and only 2.5% of those enter international trade. After considerable discussion, the committee deleted polar bears from the CITES Review of Significant Trade for all range States, although rumors remain that there will be a push to list polar bears in Appendix I at the next Conference of the Parties (COP). 
Polar bears are an excellent example of a species that is threatened, but not necessarily by trade, which has implications for how conservation advocates approach it through the Convention. The CITES provisions, and its central mechanisms that rely on trade provisions, are ill-suited to protect an animal or plant that is not significantly impacted by trade or for which trade is not driving endangerment. The success of listing polar bears in CITES could be a symbolic victory, given the Convention’s positive image globally as an effective conservation convention. Yet, it could also set the Convention up for failure, because its provisions cannot address what drives polar bear extinction. The e-course, which advances understanding of CITES’ trade provisions, and the fact that it is not a Convention focused on the strict conservation of endangered species, could help advocates navigate a better path forward for species such as polar bear.
The e-course also provides a hands-on experience that can help stakeholders determine if trade in a species is regulated by CITES, as well as permits and permit exceptions. The e-course introduces the Checklist of CITES Species, CITES Wiki Identification Manual and CITES Identification Guides. Given that the work of the Convention implicates customs agents of both exporting and importing countries, local communities and focal points implementing national legislation, improving the capacity of these groups to identify CITES-listed species and understand the provisions that listing entails will lead to more effective implementation.
Local-level stakeholders are also the first line of defense against wildlife crime, where endangered species are poached or taken from the wild and illicitly traded. Wildlife crime is a transnational security, trade and conservation challenge that can be addressed, in part, by awareness and implementation of CITES. End consumers of wildlife, like tourists for example, need to know which animal products are legal and which constitute contraband. The identification materials in the e-course can directly help consumers make informed choices with regard to CITES-listed species and can help counter demand for illegally traded wildlife and wildlife goods.
CITES mechanisms also work to limit the supply-side of illicitly traded wildlife, especially as the Convention’s Secretariat forges unique and wide-ranging partnerships to fight wildlife crime. Over the last five years for instance, CITES has established a joint initiative with INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Bank and the World Customs Organization called the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC). This partnership, as well as CITES’ harmony and engagement with the World Trade Organization (WTO), shows a wide range of cooperation that can only be strengthened by learning opportunities like that provided by e-course. Some of these actors rarely work with environmental conventions, and the e-course supports their seamless collaboration through advanced learning.
CITES is considered a successful example of multilateral environmental governance. Its implementation hinges on the participation of well-informed partners at all levels (local through to international) as well as the engagement of diverse partners and stakeholders that are not only key to the advancement of the Convention, but also to the prevention of wildlife crime, which seeks to undermine it. Without a doubt, knowledgeable stakeholders and partners are part of the continually evolving and bright future of CITES, and they benefit from learning and knowledge opportunities such as the e-course that maximize the promise of the Convention.