CITES and Customs

Know the law – the purchase and export of many animals or products derived from them is illegal!

What is it?

Many countries have national legislation that restricts what is or isn’t legal to buy in terms of animal products.

CITES  – The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora  is an international agreement between governments designed to protect species which are threatened by international trade. Currently 175 countries are signed up to it, and in doing so agree to abide by the rules it makes.

What you should know

  • Roughly 5,000 species of animals protected by CITES are listed in one of three appendices. 
  • International trade in animals or their parts listed in appendix 1 is prohibited, and trade in appendix 2 and 3 listed species is restricted. 
  • This means that trying to take items out of a country, or into another country, that are made from listed animals or products derived from them, is illegal under international law without the required permits, and the penalties for doing so can be severe.
  • Internal trade in animals or products derived from them may also be illegal under national regulations in the country you are visiting.

High profile examples of illegal products include:

  • Tiger parts – Travellers to China might see tiger parts on sale, for example in ‘tiger bone wine’. However, buying tiger parts or products made from them is illegal even within China, and taking them out of the country is an offence under CITES regulations as tigers are listed in Appendix 1. The illegal trade in tiger parts and products seriously threatens the future of these magnificent animals, and many tiger products are now derived from tigers raised in very poor conditions on so-called ‘tiger farms’ in China and other parts of Asia. Whether products are derived from wild or farmed tigers makes no difference – they are still illegal to buy and export.
  • Rhino horn – Highly valued in Vietnam and China as a component of traditional medicines, the illegal trade in rhino horn is threatening the very future of rhino populations in Africa and Asia. In spite of the fact that the international trade in rhino horn is illegal, its high value means that poachers and traders are prepared to flout the law in order to get hold of rhino horn and export it to the lucrative markets in the far East. As a result, in 2011 around 450 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa alone, and some African and Asian populations have become extinct in recent years. Buying rhino horn is illegal in most countries, and exporting it across international borders is against CITES regulations.
  • Ivory – The global demand for ivory resulted in the decimation of elephant populations in both Africa and Asia before CITES listed them on Appendix 1 and effectively banned the trade (the far less numerous Asian elephant has been on Appendix 1 since 1975, whereas African elephants didn’t go onto Appendix 1 until 1989). However, although the trade in new ivory products is banned, antique ivory and mammoth ivory (derived from the remains of thousands of mammoths buried beneath the Siberian tundra) can still be legally traded, and this, coupled with the fact that CITES has allowed some ivory stockpiles from Southern Africa to go into trade in recent years, has made things very confusing for consumers, and facilitated the ‘laundering’ of ivory obtained by elephant poachers. As a result, the international trade in ivory, particularly in China where most carving is carried out, is rife, and many thousands of elephants are illegally killed for their tusks each year. 

What you can do

  • If you care about the welfare and conservation of wild animals, don’t buy animals or products made from them. Animals are best left in their natural environment where they belong.
  • If you see animals or animal products for sale, and you think it might be illegal, contact the local police or customs authorities for the country you are in, or contact a local wildlife welfare group who may be able to help. A list of groups with a particular interest in trade, affiliated to the Species Survival Network, can be found here.
  • If you are planning to carry products made from animals from one country to another, even if they are antique items or items you already own, check first with the customs or CITES authorities in the countries you are taking the products out of and into, to ensure the species is not listed on CITES appendices. If it is, you may not be able to carry the items, or you may need special permits to do so. Contact details for CITES Management Authorities for all member countries can be found on the CITES website here.

Where is this applicable?

  • Most countries have signed up to CITES. You can see a list here.

Links to other organisations for further information