The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), also known as the Washington Convention, was adopted back in 1973 as a result of the dramatic decline of many species due to poaching and trade. Germany was one of the first signatories and, incidentally, also the first EU member state to sign the Convention. CITES entered into force internationally in 1975, and just one year later, its provisions were implemented in Germany. Today, there are 181 parties to the Convention, representing more than 85 percent of all countries in the world. It currently covers approximately 5,000 fauna and 29,000 flora species. According to its preamble, the Convention serves:
- to protect "wild fauna and flora in their many beautiful and varied forms (which) are an irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the earth"
- to preserve the "value of wild fauna and flora from aesthetic, scientific, cultural, recreational and economic points of view"
- "for this and the generations to come".
Despite its title ("Trade"), CITES is not a trade agreement, but an agreement designed to protect animals and plants not only as our natural basis of life, but also as fellow living creatures.
The precautionary principle is at the core of the Convention: Specimens of a species may only be traded if the conservation status of the species is not endangered. In this case, "trade" refers exclusively to trade between different countries (in particular exports and imports), but not, however, to trade within a country.
The core instruments of the Convention are the import and export permit requirements. The more endangered a species is, the stricter the trade restrictions are.
There is a general ban on trade for critically endangered species (listed in Appendix I). Exceptions are only permitted under very limited conditions provided that no commercial purposes are being pursued (for example scientific research) or if the specimens were reproduced artificially (for example orchids, cacti). Pandas, great apes, whales, elephants, and parrots are among the species listed in Appendix I.
Most species covered by the Convention are not yet in immediate danger of extinction, but potentially threatened by trade (Appendix II). In these cases, the Convention allows trade as long as it is sustainable. An export permit for these animals and plants may only be granted by the exporting country if the removal of these specimens does not endanger the conservation status of the species. The species listed in Appendix II include all hawks and falcons, tortoises, crocodiles, some species of sharks and rays, and most orchid species.
Appendix III lists species, for example different duck species from Ghana and the king vulture of Honduras, that are indigenous to certain countries that want to have greater control over exports of these species and, for this purpose, need the support of the other Parties. Every three years, the Appendices are updated at the CITES Conference of the Parties.