At a glance:

Trade in wildlife, and products made from it, is big business – worth up to $20 billion a year. A quarter of this is thought to be illegal.

Some 40,000 monkeys and other primates are estimated to be shipped across international borders each year, as are 2 to 5 million live birds, 2 to 3 million live reptiles, 10 to 25 million reptile skins, 500 to 600 million ornamental fish, 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of corals, 7 to 8 million cacti and 9 to10 million orchids, and many other products. They are bought for a great variety of uses from pets to medicine, from food to fashion, from ornaments to scientific research.

Much of the trade is from developing countries, which contain most of the world’s biodiversity, to developed ones, which provide the demand; the United States is even the biggest market for traditional Chinese medicines made from wild species.

The trade is driving many species towards extinction. But it need not do so. The United Nations recognizes that properly regulated trade, keeping the exploitation of species within sustainable levels, can bring much-needed income, especially to developing countries and their peoples.

For the last quarter of a century – through CITES – the world community has worked to bring it under control. Trade in species threatened with extinction is banned, and it is controlled where it might endanger species if left unrestricted. More and more countries have acceded to the Convention and it has done much to curb the ill-effects of the trade. But, as these pages show, some species are still endangered, and there is still much work to do.

High fashion is driving the rare Tibetan antelope rapidly towards extinction. Its wool provides the gossamer light yet warm shahtoosh, prized by some of the world’s richest women. It is so fine that a large shawl – which can cost up to $15,000 – can be pulled through a wedding ring. Yet at least three of the antelope are killed to provide the wool for each one. International trade in the wool has been banned for over 20 years, but demand remains so high that whole herds are still being gunned down by poachers, often with automatic weapons. Experts estimate that only about 70,000 of the antelope now remain – down from over a million around 1900 – and that 20,000 are being killed every year for their wool. “These are not shawls, they are shrouds,” says Dr. George Schaller, the biologist and explorer, who is Director of Science for the United States Wildlife Conservation Society.

In less than a quarter of a century, between 1970 and 1994, sub-Saharan Africa lost 95 per cent of its black rhinos, and the wildlife trade was the major reason. Other species, like the Javan and Sumatran rhinos, are also in grave peril. The prehistoric looking creatures, whose direct ancestors have lived on Earth for 40 million years, are killed for their horns. These have long been used in traditional Oriental medicine to cool fever (but not as an aphrodisiac, as popularly believed). And demand for rhino horn increased greatly in the 1970s as young North Yemeni men, prosperous from working in Saudi Arabia during the oil boom, bought daggers with ornamental handles made of it: the price of the horn increased 21 times during the decade. The trade has been illegal since 1977, but it still continues. Worldwide only 12,000 rhinos – from five species – still survive, though the decline in black rhinos has eased in recent years.

Tigers ruled over a vast swathe of the Earth, from Turkey to Indonesia, for a million years. Now less than 7,500 remain. Three of the tiger’s eight subspecies have become extinct since the 1940s and the rest are endangered. Overhunting and the loss of its habitat have both done much to reduce it to this state. But the most immediate threat to its survival now comes from poaching. Over the past 1,000 years almost every part of the tiger has been used in traditional Chinese medicine; now just its bones are used – to treat rheumatism – but this is sufficient to fuel a large illegal trade.

The Chinese happy tree, which produces a chemical used to treat cancer, is in a sorry condition: less than 4,000 survive in the wild. The devil’s claw, a southern African medicinal plant – used in drugs to treat arteriosclerosis, diabetes, hepatitis and other complaints – is under pressure from overharvesting. And the European herb, spring Adonis used in homeopathy and folk medicine, is also under threat. Around 80 per cent of the estimated 1,000 medicinal plants in the Himalayan region of Lahaul and Spiti are estimated to have been severely depleted over the last decade to meet the increasing demands of the international medical and perfume industries. Some 20,000 to 30,000 tonnes of European medicinal plants are gathered from the wild each year, and some 150 species are threatened as a result.

Millions of wild birds are caught and traded internationally every year, mainly to be sold as pets. Finches and parrots are the most popular, but, in all a quarter of the world’s known bird species have been recorded in the trade over the past two decades. Hundreds of thousands die after capture, hundreds of thousands more perish in transit. Most of the trade is legal, but there is also a large illegal one, often in endangered species, such as salmon-crested cockatoos, Bali starlings, and red siskins; 250,000 birds are thought to be smuggled into the United States alone every year. Many, including the hyacinth macaw and the red and blue lory, are endangered as a result, and the trade has helped to wipe out the last wild population of Spix macaws. However, since CITES came into force, the trade has declined as controls have tightened.

Populations of basking sharks
– the world’s second largest sea fish – have crashed all over the world. Their giant fins, which grow up to 2 metres tall, are in great demand for shark’s fin soup; a single large fin sold for $15,000 last year. Sturgeon – which produce caviar – are also endangered; trade in products from two species of the 250 million year old fish is banned, and it is controlled for the other 25. And even the coelacanth, the 400 million year old “living fossil” – whose discovery, after long being thought extinct, caused international celebration – may be put in peril by collectors.


CITES was adopted in 1973 and came into force two years later. So far there are 150 Parties to the Convention, making it one of the world’s largest conservation agreements. Its Secretariat is based in Geneva, Switzerland, and special Management Authorities in each member country issue permits for trade in species listed in the CITES Appendixes (see below). Each country must also designate a Scientific Authority to provide scientific advice on imports and exports. Approximately every two and a half years the Parties to the Convention meet at a Conference of the Parties (COP). COP11 is being held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 10-20 April, 2000.

The Convention offers varying degrees of protection to more than 35,000 species of animals and plants, depending on their condition in the wild and the effect that international trade may have on them. It bans international commercial trade in an agreed list of plant and animal species threatened with extinction – including cheetahs, snow leopards, tigers, all the big apes, many crocodiles and tortoises and birds of prey, and some cacti and orchids; these are listed in Appendix I of the Convention. Those that may become extinct if trade is is not strictly controlled – such as the rest of the cat, crocodile, primate and orchid species – are placed on Appendix II, where trade is regulated. Appendix III includes species regulated within particular member countries who need the cooperation of others to control cross-border trade; many bird species have been included here by Ghana, Malaysia and some other countries. Species are placed on the Appendixes, or moved between them, by consensus or a two-thirds majority vote at meetings of the committees to the COP.

PHOTOGRAPHS: G. Williams/UNEP/Topham,   Roland Seitre/Still Pictures,  Jacob Nuab/UNEP/Topham,  Roland Seitre/Still Pictures,  Bob Gibbons/A-Z Botanical Collection,  Klein Hubert/Still Pictures,  Norbert Wu/Still Pictures

Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Critical crossroads | Genetically engineered crops... | Sustainable solutions | Protect elephants | Getting it together | CITES: 2000 and beyond | At a glance | Competition | Interpol alert | Deep waters, high stakes | Tall trees and bottom lines | Globalizing solutions | Global Biodiversity... | Walking on the wild side... | Voices of the Earth | Millennium massacre