ELI Primary Menu

Skip to main content

ESA and CITES: Avenues for the Future of Species Conservation and Legislation

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Hannah Dale

Research & Publications Intern

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) are seminal pieces of legislation that have governed species conservation in the United States for over 40 years. The ESA dictates a regulatory framework for identifying and protecting threatened species and provides funding and incentives to states to reach this goal. CITES is an international agreement signed by 183 nations that seeks to regulate and restrict the international trade of endangered wildlife. The adoption of this agreement gives party states some authority over species conservation in other parts of the world. The ESA acknowledges and works to cooperate with international species conservation policies like CITES, and it even includes provisions for executing CITES policies. Together, CITES and the ESA operate at state, national, and international scales, making use of agency, intergovernmental, and nonprofit partnerships to work toward species conservation.

In 40 years of implementation, the ESA and CITES have had significant impacts on species protection. The ESA helped to restore grizzly bear, gray wolf, and bald eagle populations, among others. According to a 2012 study by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Act has prevented 99% of identified endangered species from going extinct, it has recovered 90% of more than 100 species throughout the United States, and it has designated more than 1 million acres of critical habitat. Despite these achievements, only 1% of recovering species have met the requirements for delisting under the ESA. 

Wild Cat

In July 2018, the Trump Administration proposed regulatory changes to the ESA that could impact the law’s future capacity in several important ways. These changes would define the “foreseeable future” of conservation plans on an individual basis, potentially limiting protections for species impacted by climate change. The proposed revisions would also require economic consequences to be considered when determining plans for conservation, and they would redefine the ESA’s authority over designating critical habitat. The implications of these proposed changes increase uncertainties about future species recovery and the effectiveness of the law.

CITES, much like the ESA, has had mixed outcomes thus far. CITES restricts the trade of over 35,000 species, and while it has been instrumental in combatting unregulated wildlife trade, the multilateral treaty has faced significant challenges in certain parts of the world. For instance, CITES parties have had problems controlling rhino trafficking in Vietnam, which is a driving factor for rhino poaching in southern Africa. Recently, CITES parties and the Secretariat have threatened party states who fail to meet their regulations with economic sanctions, with a specific focus on Vietnam and Mozambique. The global ivory trade in these areas has been a key focus of CITES, and the parties hope to strengthen the control of illegal ivory trade in the coming years.

Recent changes adopted in January 2017 at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES expanded the number of listed species, downlisted others, and altered the protection status of certain species, including pangolins, one of the world's most illegally trafficked mammals. The parties also adopted new resolutions and decisions regarding implementation strategies, community engagement, and factors that facilitate wildlife crime. These changes demonstrate the parties’ vision for CITES’ future and will influence the direction of CITES moving forward.

The new challenges and changes that the ESA and CITES face will definitively influence the future of wildlife conservation. On November 1, ELI, the American Bar Association (ABA) Endangered Species Committee, and the ABA International Environmental and Resources Law Committee are hosting a seminar* on the current issues facing the ESA and CITES. Experts will first address the ESA, focusing on its impacts on U.S. species conservation, its effectiveness, the implications for the proposed changes, controversies surrounding the Act, and potential solutions. Panelists will then address CITES, focusing on proposed changes, implementation challenges, the effectiveness of the agreement, and possible avenues for enforcement solutions. A networking reception will follow. The event is free and open to the public, so please join us as we explore the inner workings of these vital legal frameworks and their ramifications, benefits, challenges, and opportunities for protecting the future of endangered species in the United States and around the world. 

*Interested in attending? Register by October 29. Event details and RSVP information can be found here: ESA and CITES: Two Statutes, Both Alike in Dignity.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.