CITES conference – how the UN saw it

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The triennial conference of the parties to a United Nations-backed wildlife treaty ended in Johannesburg earlier this week with actions expected to go a long way in ensuring protection for some of the most vulnerable plants and animals on the planet.

“The 17th conference of the parties (COP) is a game changer that will be remembered as a point in history when the tide turned in favour of ensuring the survival of our most vulnerable wildlife,” said Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), John E. Scanlon after the conference.
“It was not just the well-known species on the agenda, the pangolin and many lesser known species also came under the spotlight,” he added, noting decisions to bring new marine and timber species under CITES trade controls.

According to Scanlon, the decisions adopted by the COP, shorthand for “Conference of Parties” to the Convention, the primary governing body of CITES, will firmly embed wildlife in the agendas of global enforcement, development and financing agencies with the capacity and technical expertise to help ensure implementation of the Convention on the front lines.

He further noted the conference was marked by agreement on measures to improve sustainable trade in a number of species, including the queen conch, humphead wrasse, sharks, snakes and African wild dog, as well as a large range of timber species, such as bubinga and rosewoods and the African cherry and agarwood.

Parties also recognised several conservation success stories, including that of the Cape mountain zebra, several species of crocodiles and the wood bison, which were all by consensus down-listed from Appendix I under CITES to Appendix II in recognition of their improved conservation status.

A number of new animals and plants were also added to the CITES Appendices affecting a large number of mammals, marine and timber species, as well as many reptiles and amphibians. Similarly, there was a fresh push to further safeguard threatened species and added protection was accorded for the African grey parrot, Barbary Macaque, Blaine’s fishhook cactus, elephant, pangolin and saiga antelope.

Measures were also agreed to combat illegal trade for specific species, including included the African grey parrot, African lion, cheetah, helmeted hornbill, pangolin, rhino and totoaba, the largest member of the drum family of fishes.

Earlier, in his remarks at the opening of the COP, Erik Solheim, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) underscored the importance of protecting endangered species.
“Illegal trade of everything from the helmeted hornbill to the hundreds of species of rosewood severely damages our planet and it’s only through the international co-operation we’ve seen under CITES that we can prevent it,” he said.

Scanlon also emphasised CITES is now seen as an indispensable tool for achieving the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For instance, goals 14 and 15 include specific references on the protection of flora, fauna and ecosystems.

The COP, held every three years, is the primary governing body of the Convention. This year’s conference was held in Johannesburg from 24 September to 4 October and was attended by more than 3,500 people, including 2,500 officials from the 152 national governments.

The conference also decided the 18th COP will be held in Sri Lanka in 2019.



With 183 Parties, CITES is one of the world’s most powerful tools for biodiversity conservation. It regulates international trade in over 35,000 species of plants and animals, including their products and derivatives, ensuring survival in the wild with benefits for the livelihoods of local people and the global environment.