What Does CITES Do?

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One of the most familiar players in the African elephant crisis of the last 20 years is CITES, shorthand for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

CITES (pronounced SIGH-TEEZ ) is not an organization but an agreement now signed by more than 130 countries to monitor hundreds of wild species whose survival is threatened by trade. Trade restrictions are designed to regulate markets and lower the demand for imperiled species, allowing their populations to rebound. Member countries, including the United States, come together every two to three years to revisit the status of these species, which range from mahogany trees and great whales to exotic parrots and black rhinos.

Species are assigned to one of three categories that reflect the level of threat and regulate their commerce. Appendix I prohibits trade in species faced with extinction. Appendix II monitors commercial use of species at risk for endangerment. Appendix III lists species that are not endangered but require "special attention." This designation is intended to help countries obtain international assistance in protecting native species.

CITES signatories have taken an escalating series of measures over the last two decades to save Africa's elephants from extinction:

1970s - A boom in ivory trade triggers catastrophic poaching; the number of African elephants will drop by more than half in the next two decades.

1973 - CITES is drawn up by 10 charter nations in Washington, D.C., to curb a growing and destructive trade in wildlife and their products.

1975 - CITES signatories place the African elephant on Appendix III.

1976 - The African elephant is moved to Appendix II.

1981 - A new CITES resolution requires extensive documentation of the source of traded ivory in an effort to control illegal sales.

1989 - The African elephant is moved to Appendix I; all international ivory trade is banned, beginning in 1990. By now CITES membership has grown to 112 countries. At the same time the Somali Amendment acknowledges that certain elephant populations may not be endangered and establishes a panel of experts to review proposals from countries wishing to have their elephants downlisted to Appendix II and to trade ivory.

1992 - Botswana, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe propose a downlisting of elephants in southern Africa to allow a limited trade in elephant products. The proposals are withdrawn in the face of strong opposition.

1995 - South Africa proposes downlisting in order to sell hides and meat, not ivory, but subsequently withdraws the request.

1997 - CITES meeting in June will consider proposals from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to downlist their elephant population and to sell one ivory shipment a year to Japan for the next two years.