Despite 50 years of CITES, still too much wildlife is being smuggled

About 160 exotic animals were seized at the Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, Peru, a few days ago. The incident highlights that after 50 years of CITES, too many animals are still being smuggled around the globe.

This year, the United Nations highlighted the 50th anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) - the international pact between governments to protect species threatened by the international wildlife trade. However, the practice is still widespread, as the recent incident in Peru has shown.

Over 100 million plants and animals are traded legally and illegally worldwide every year. Based on data reported by CITES Parties, more than 1.3 billion individual plants and animals were reported in international trade between 2011 and 2020, of which 18 per cent were wild-caught.

Even with 50 years of CITES, most cases remain unpunished or undetected. Therefore, the EU Council has identified environmental crime as a top priority in combating serious and organised crime.

Lists of plants and animals

CITES originated as a resolution adopted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1963. Its primary aim was to prevent species depletion in the wild due to international trade in animals and plants listed under CITES. The Convention was opened for signature in 1973 and entered into force on 1 July 1975.

It is one of the world's oldest and largest conservation agreements, emphasising sustainable use. While participation is voluntary, countries bound by the Convention are called Parties. Although legally binding, CITES doesn't replace national laws but provides a framework that each Party respects and requires the adoption of domestic legislation to implement CITES at the national level.


The Convention divides species into three appendices, each with a different level of protection. Appendix I includes species that may not be taken from the wild due to their endangered status, such as tigers, rhinos, primates and birds.

Appendix II includes species that can only be traded with a CITES permit, including certain corals, crustaceans, crocodiles and giant snakes. Scientists closely monitor this list to determine permit eligibility.

Appendix III includes species that the country of origin, with the help of other nations, deems essential to monitor for export.

Protection extends to live animals, plants and their products, such as eggs, feathers, roots, or wood. CITES primarily regulates (international) trade in protected species, not their local conservation.


In Europe, the CITES provisions are incorporated into European Regulation (EC) No. 338/97, which consists of four Appendices, with Appendix A containing the most strictly protected species and Appendix D containing the least strictly protected species.

While these Appendices are essentially the same as those in the CITES Convention, some species are afforded stricter protection under the European Regulation. In addition, the European version imposes more stringent regulations on importing animals, plants, or products of protected species.

A tracking system for trade in Appendix A species has been established in Europe, facilitated by EU certificates that must be issued before any animal, plant or product transfer.


In Belgium, the EU Regulation applies, supplemented by national CITES legislation. This legislation specifies the bodies responsible for enforcing CITES compliance, including customs, the police and the Federal Public Service for Health, Food Chain Safety and the Environment (FOD Volksgezondheid), as well as the penalties for violating CITES laws, which can include imprisonment for up to five years and fines of up to 50,000 euros.

The CITES Management Authority in Belgium is part of the Federal Public Service Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment. In addition to issuing import and export permits, they provide information to individuals and training to enforcement agencies.


This undated handout picture released by SERFOR shows species protected internationally by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) after being seized from a passanger at the Lima International airport in Lima. Peruvian authorities seized 160 exotic wild animals at the Lima international airport that a passenger from Miami intended to enter illegally to supposedly later traffic in Asia, the National Forestry and Wildlife Service (Serfor) reported this Thursday. ​ © AFP

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