Prior to about the Second World War, the international animal trade was pretty foot-loose and fancy-free. Commercial animal dealers such as the Hagenbeck family and Frank Buck filled orders for zoos, circuses, and private collectors; their main concerns were finding the animals and keeping them alive and healthy until they reached their destinations in Europe or America. Even after the war, the collecting and trading business was reasonably unrestrained, easy enough to enter that a young Gerald Durrell was able to take his new inheritance and set off on a series of collecting expeditions to Africa and South America.
Today, the international movement of plants and animals is very tightly regulated, and rightly so. Not only does the unrestricted movement of wildlife around the planet pose risks both medical (spreading diseases) and ecological (invasive species), it also can lead to over-exploitation of endangered species. Nations nowadays have stringent quarantine and regulatory processes to protect themselves from some of these threats (that is, to protect themselves from imported plants and animals). To protect the plants and animals themselves, we have CITES.
CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna. Ratified in 1973 and implemented two years later, it is one of the most important international treaties regulating the trade of wildlife and the products of wildlife (skins, ivory, horns, etc). Participation is voluntary, but all but a dozen or so members of the United Nations have signed it in a pledge to regulate the international wildlife trade.
Over 30,000 species of plant and animal are listed in the treaty, being placed on one of three appendices. The appendix an animal or plant is listed as determines its trade status under the treaty.
- Appendix I - Species that are the most threatened by international trade. Commercial trade is illegal, except in unique permitted situations. Example: Clouded Leopard
- Appendix II - Species which may become endangered if not monitored carefully, or species which closely resemble Appendix I species and may be confused. Captive bred specimens of Appendix I species are listed as Appendix II. Example: Aldabra Tortoise
- Appendix III - Species which one or more member country feels that it has a special need to protect, and asks other signatory nations to assist with. This is especially used for species which are threatened locally, but not globally. Example: Saddle-Billed Stork
Every three years, representatives of the signatory nations meet to discuss the treaty and any updates or revisions that they feel must be made to it.
CITES has done much to halt the trade of wildlife and its products, but it is not without its critics. Some feel that by making it impossible (or at least far more difficult) for member nations to profit from their wildlife, the treaty makes it harder to protect it. For example, an African country with a healthy population of elephants may want to sell ivory from its herds, or sell trophy-hunting licenses, but be thwarted by CITES regulations which ban the sale, or would prevent a foreign hunter from taking his or her trophy home. That country, then, is not only denied the profits from its elephants (which would, it argues, be channeled back into conservation), but it looses its incentive to protect its elephants. This has led some wildlife managers to declare, "The worse thing that can happen to an animal is that is goes on Appendix I of CITES.*"
Many species of crocodilian, such as this Siamese crocodile photographed at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, are endangered in the wild but thrive - commercially farmed, in some cases - in captivity. CITES can complicate the trade in legally, sustainably harvested wildlife products, to the dismay of some authorities.
Defenders of CITES contend that allowing such exemptions would open a floodgate of illegal wildlife trafficking along with the legal. If rhino horn, for example, can be legally sold from South Africa but not the surrounding countries, poachers across the continent will simply smuggle their horns into South Africa, where they can then sell it on the open market.
CITES raises headaches for zoos and aquariums as well. It can make some species difficult to obtain, nearly impossible in some cases. True, most zoo animals - especially the mammals - are now born in captivity, sometimes going back several generations. That being said, new bloodlines are sometimes desired, and confiscated or rescued wildlife in other countries (non-releasable, taken from poachers or illegal owners) could be rehoused in American or European zoos. The (non-CITES) intense restrictions and regulations on importing and exporting animals from Australia - even the most common species, sometimes even animals that are common enough to be considered pests over there - has driven many an American zoo director to the edge of insanity. After all, they reason, CITES is about conservation, we're about conservation... aren't we supposed to all be on the same side?
As someone who has helped sift through the pounds and pounds of paperwork that animal shipments can entail, I will concur... CITES can be a huge pain in the butt. It does, however, do a lot to limit the trade of endangered species to perhaps those few who can prove themselves worthy in the eyes of the conservation gods (or at least bureaucrats). If a zoo or aquarium's rationale is just, hopefully they can make the cut and win an exemption or approval. If not, perhaps a few thwarted acquisitions are a small price to pay for supporting a global conservation initiative.
*Grahame Web, Crocodile Biologist, quoted in David Quammen's Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind.