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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Improving CITES could save more species

Grey-headed parakeets (Psittacula finschii) and hill mynas (Gracula religiosa) for the pet trade are shown here on sale along the northern Thai-Myanmar border.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna—known as CITES—is an important global agreement that encourages countries around the world to monitor the trade of plants and animals. Unfortunately, the business of buying and selling wildlife across countries' borders often takes the form of illegal poaching. Furthermore, this illegal trade of wildlife can spread infectious diseases across borders and introduce destructive, invading species to ecosystems that can't handle them.

So, in a Policy Forum this week in Science, Jacob Phelps and colleagues argue that CITES needs some revisions—and it needs them quickly if world leaders really want to preserve Earth's endangered species. The authors highlight current problems with the way that CITES countries perform their research and analyze their data. In turn, they suggest some strategies that might help to strengthen the international CITES agreement in the future.

Phelps and his colleagues say that CITES relies on participating countries to report illegal wildlife trade—but many governments are weak or corrupt, and there are good reasons for some countries to lie or make up data.

Southeast Asian box turtles (Cuora amboinensis), here in a storage warehouse, are sold for their meat, Palembang, Sumatra, Indonesia.

Furthermore, the authors say that many CITES countries only list animals by their class and not by their species, which is not specific enough. Most CITES data is also collected from airports and other easily accessible trade routes, rather than from public border markets or black markets where poaching and illegal wildlife trade normally occurs.

In the Policy Forum, Phelps and the other authors call on all CITES members (especially the major plant- and animal-importing nations) to increase their contributions to the CITES cause. They also suggest that more industries and individuals that are involved in trading plants and animals should contribute to CITES costs. This article appears in the 24 December 2010 issue of Science.