CITES Secretary-General's keynote address at the WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums) Annual Conference 2017 - Berlin, Germany

Updated on 12 January 2021

Keynote Address by John E. Scanlon, CITES Secretary-General

WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums) Annual Conference 2017

"What is CITES and what is its Relationship to Zoos and Aquariums?"

Berlin, Germany, 15-19 October 2017


WAZA President, Jenny Gray

WAZA CEO, Doug Cress

Distinguished guests, friends and colleagues

Thank you very much for the invitation to address your Annual Conference, which I think may be a first for a CITES Secretary-General. We were delighted to sign our first ever Memorandum of Understanding with WAZA back in 2011 and today’s session presents an opportunity to breathe some life back in to it!


Having been in this role for seven years now, I can see that zoos and aquariums have a lot of expertise on conservation, animal welfare, education and outreach that is of direct relevance to CITES – but that expertise is not yet being drawn upon very effectively in supporting the Convention.

This is a great pity, as out of all of the very important biodiversity conventions we have, CITES is the one of most direct relevance to this community. Why? First and foremost, because zoos and aquariums are involved in the international trade in wild animals and that trade is strictly regulated under CITES.

There are many areas for cooperation and we can and should deepen our relationship. Through today’s session I would like to explore directly with you what more we can do together, and I will offer some specific suggestions for you to become more deeply involved in CITES work.


First, a few words on CITES for those who may not be so familiar with the Convention.

The origins of CITES

The need for a convention to regulate international wildlife trade was first identified in a decision of the IUCN General Assembly held in Nairobi back in 1963. The 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, called for negotiations on a convention to be concluded as soon as possible and the US Government heeded this call by hosting a Plenipotentiary Conference in 1973, which resulted in CITES being adopted on 3 March. Since 2014, 3 March has been globally celebrated as UN World Wildlife Day.1

CITES entered into force on 1 July 1975 and today has 183 States Parties, 182 countries and the European Union. It is a Convention that will go to a vote where there is no consensus, with a 2/3 majority carrying the day, and it has a well-used compliance mechanism. It is today regarded as one of the most successful of all international environment-related agreements, and is increasingly recognized as an import tool for achieving sustainability in our oceans and forests and the Sustainable Development Goals.2

CITES was also the first, and possibly remains the only, global legal instrument to address animal welfare3 concerns, while noting some issues have been considered by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE)4 and several other conventions have adopted certain resolutions that relate to aspects of animal welfare.5

The animal welfare provisions under CITES are specific and targeted. They address the transport of live animals so as to minimize the risk of injury, damage to heath or cruel treatment and to ensure the suitability of places destined to receive live animals6, including rescue centers. Guidance on meeting these CITES obligations have been provided by the Parties in some instances, such as through the guidelines on the transport of live specimens7 and further efforts to enhance guidance are underway, in particular concerning what constitutes “appropriate and acceptable destinations” for trade in live elephants and rhinoceros.

While it remains an important issue under CITES, most animal welfare issues are, however, still addressed through domestic law rather than CITES or any other international law.

CITES and wildlife trade

CITES regulates international trade in CITES-listed wildlife. The Convention regulates commercial and non-commercial international trade in around 36,000 species of animals and plants, of which about 6,000 are animals, including their parts and derivatives.

The nature of the various trade related measures utilized by CITES to regulate this trade depends primarily upon the biological status of the species. A distinction is also drawn between commercial and non-commercial trade and, in the case of animals, wild taken, ranched or captive bred.

CITES obliges States that are Party to the Convention (inter alia) not to trade in listed species other than in accordance with the Convention, to take appropriate measures to enforce the Convention and to prohibit trade in violation thereof, including measures to penalize such trade. It places obligations right across the supply chain – from source, through transit, to destination.

For certain species, commercial international trade in wild taken specimens is prohibited. These species are included in Appendix I of the Convention and they are categorized as threatened with extinction.  This prohibition on commercial international trade includes commercial trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn, great apes, marine turtles and tigers.

CITES does however allow for some non-commercial trade and trade in captive bred and ranched Appendix I listed animals. This non-commercial trade and trade in captive bred and ranched animals will often involve zoos and aquariums. The purpose of certain zoos, commercial or not, sometimes comes into question, as does the true origin of a species.

For other species commercial international trade is allowed but is subject to strict regulation to be sure it is legal, sustainable and traceable. These species are included in Appendix II of the Convention and they are categorized as not necessarily now threatened with extinction but they could become so if trade is not strictly regulated.

This regulated legal trade includes commercial trade in certain live animals, as well as crocodile and python skins, the meat of the queen conch, the wool of the vicuña, certain shark fins and meat, and the bark of the African cherry tree – and CITES Appendix II listed specimens can lawfully be found in products such as building materials, clothes, cosmetics, food, fragrances, furniture, medicines and musical instruments.8

CITES trade controls can impact local livelihoods in many different ways, and well-regulated trade can generate benefits for both people and wildlife. There are about one million recorded trade transactions each year, and they are reported to the Secretariat and made publicly available and can all be searched on-line through the CITES Trade Database.

While different species of animals and plants are included on different appendices, the Convention does not draw any distinction between charismatic and lesser-known species, although the attention paid to different species, of animals in particular, varies considerably. In that sense, one could say that while all animals are equal under CITES, in the court of public opinion "some animals are more equal than others."9

Tackling illicit wildlife trafficking – or illegal wildlife trade

CITES addresses both legal and illegal trade. For domestic or international trade in wildlife to be described as illegal or as ‘illicit wildlife trafficking’, which is often used to refer to illegal trade, it must contravene either domestic or international law (or both).

Over the past decade we have experienced a surge in illegal wildlife trade with transnational organized groups targeting high-value wildlife. Leaving aside timber and marine products, it is estimated that the annual value of wildlife crime is up to USD 20 billion a year ranking it amongst other serious transnational crimes such as the trafficking in narcotics, people and arms.

The first ever UN World Wildlife Crime Report released last year estimates products derived from over 7,000 species of wild animals and plants are being illegally traded, across all regions. It affects products derived from animals and plants that cannot be traded commercially under CITES rules, such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts. It also affects animals and plants that can be legally traded under CITES strict trade rules, such as python skins, corals, and rosewood timber, but where people do not first obtain the necessary permits to certify legality and sustainability, or certificates to certify legal origin.

We are aware of instances where wild animals have been illegally traded to zoos, sometimes under the guise of having been captivity bred.

Let me share just three specific examples to illustrate the scale of the illegal taking that feeds this illicit trade:

  • The poaching of African elephants and the illegal trade in their ivory is one of the most noticeable and destructive forms of wildlife crime. Over the period 2010-2012, an estimated 100,000 elephants were poached for their ivory.
  • The recovery of the White rhino is a great conservation success story, mainly due to the efforts undertaken in South Africa. Zoos have also played a role in the comeback of the rhino. But these gains are now under threat.  Poaching was well under control up until 2007 when only 60 animals were poached across Africa. Since that time we have seen a rapidly increasing level of poaching, reaching over 1,300 last year.
  • And these crimes are not only affecting iconic species that we all know well. Lesser known species such as the pangolin, a small ant eater living in Africa and Asia, are being poached at a massive rate for their scales and meat, with 10 tonnes of pangolin meat being recovered in just one customs seizure – that is the equivalent of 130 people of my weight. 

These criminal groups are not just decimating wildlife – they are destroying the wildlife assets that can support sustainable development. They are also corrupting local officials, recruiting and arming local poachers, injuring and killing rangers and creating instability. They are depriving local communities of the ability to develop their own natural resources, such as for wildlife based tourism or to benefit from legal trade in certain wildlife products that can be sustainably used for food, fashion and medicine, which can lift communities from poverty. Rather this illegal trade is putting whole communities into a poverty spiral.

The high levels of political concern over this devastating illegal trade is reflected in the decisions and resolutions of many bodies inside and outside of the UN, and the concerns of the international community was powerfully reinforced earlier last month when the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted its third resolution on ‘Tackling Illicit Trafficking in Wildlife’.

But how do you stop these criminals? It is not easy – in fact it is really hard. Over the past seven years we have helped generate a global collective effort to tackle both demand and supply.

We are today working right across the entire illegal wildlife chain and with the agencies at international and national level that are mandated, trained and resourced to deal with transnational crimes, in particular through the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), a partnership of CITES, INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank and the World Customs Organization. Through this Consortium we are deploying the same tools and techniques used to combat other serious transnational crimes in the fight against wildlife crimes.

Yet even with all of the enforcement agencies on board, and the many other measures underway, we will not succeed unless we also have local communities, the not for profit and the private sectors with us as well. And we have with our partners reached out to the technology, tourism, transport industries and many other sectors to join us in this fight. Today we reach out to you.


Like CITES, WAZA and its membership, attracts a lot of healthy interest amongst the general public and NGO community, some supportive, some critical, which is a healthy thing. We welcome this depth of interest as it represents the ‘real world’ of differing opinions and not a sanitized world view.

I recently read an article in The Guardian on closing down all zoos and aquariums, which included the comment “Could we configure our world to allow animals their freedom, without the destructive hierarchies that allow such anachronisms as zoos to exist…”  I am not sure that is a request you can accommodate, but to maintain wide public and political support the zoos and aquariums of the 21st century must exhibit exemplary practice in conservation and animal welfare and effectively communicate the same.

Exemplary practice in conservation and animal welfare is a matter of common interest to CITES and WAZA, and let me now address some areas – and there are many more – where we think we could deepen our collaboration in a very tangible manner. I will cluster them under conservation, animal welfare, education and outreach. I make my comments in the context of your ‘Committing to Conservation’ and ‘Caring for Wildlife’ Strategies and your Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare.


WAZA members, like CITES, have a common conservation objective: both want wild animals to survive in their natural habitat.

Zoos have a long history of ex situ conservation, with certain zoos collectively providing a diversified gene pool of endangered species, and achieving success in the reintroduction of some species to the wild. This is great and continues, for well-known and lesser known species.

It is also critically important for zoos and aquariums to involve themselves more deeply in in situ conservation and to engage with and support local communities living amongst wildlife, especially for communities from where your animals are, or have historically been, sourced. Ensuring local communities derive a benefit from wildlife is critical to combatting poaching and smuggling at source. You can and must be a part of this effort.

At times, we see wild animals illegally passed off as being captive bred to get through CITES and Customs controls. It is not always easy to distinguish captive bred from wild taken and this is an area where your staff can assist  authorities. You can also assist authorities in identifying species found in trade to determine if they are CITES listed or not, which can sometimes also be difficult.

Animal welfare

Zoos and aquariums continue to play a vital role in serving as rescue centers for wildlife that has been intercepted in illegal trade. The pressure on rescue centers have been increasing as the scale of illegal trade has grown, along with the response, which is seeing many more seizures. We thank you for serving in this challenging often under recognized role, which I can assure you is invaluable to enforcement officers who have the difficult task of knowing where to place seized and confiscated animals and in quick time. Clear protocols between zoos and aquariums serving as rescue centers and enforcement authorities is very important in this regard.

In this context, we have recently received detailed feedback from Parties on how they use, and the usefulness of, the CITES guidelines on the disposal of illegally traded and confiscated CITES listed live animals (and plants).10 We would welcome your analysis of this feedback given your depth of experience in serving as rescue centers.

But there are many more aspects of animal welfare where you have a key role to play under CITES.

CITES uses certain terms for trade in live wild animals that could benefit from further guidance as to their application. As mentioned earlier, the Convention refers trade in Appendix I animals, which cannot be for traded for commercial purposes, only being accepted when the importing State is satisfied that “the proposed recipient of a living specimen is suitably equipped to care for it”. In addition, there are annotations to the listings of certain African rhinoceros and elephant populations that only allows trade in live animals to “appropriate and acceptable destinations”.

The definition of these terms is in need of better guidance and a process to do so was initiated by decisions taken at CITES CoP17 held in Johannesburg in 2016, which was picked up and progressed by the CITES Animals Committee held earlier this year. WAZA is a part of this process and we look to it to contributing the benefit of the expertise of its vast membership. For example, I understand some zoos in the US have decided they are not an appropriate and acceptable destination for live elephants. Why was that? What criteria did they apply? This is one of the more contentious issues under CITES and it is an area of mutual interest for getting the guidance to Parties right.

CITES has effectively adopted the IATA (International Air Transport Association) Live Animals Regulations for the air transport of live CITES listed wild animals and has Guidelines for the non-air transport of live wild animals (and plants), based upon these Regulations. Like WAZA, we participate in the process of reviewing these IATA Regulations.  You can inform the Secretariat of any issues, problems, irregularities in using these Regulations and Guidelines and in doing so assist in continually improving them.

Education and outreach

The world zoo and aquarium community is said to welcome over 700 million visitors annually. That is a big number of people.

WAZA members profile the species of animals they house to attract people. Many of these species are listed under CITES and come under our trade controls. WAZA members have an extraordinary ability to educate their visitors on CITES, what it does, and how they can help by not buying either illegally or unsustainably sourced wildlife products.

The CITES Secretariat can support you in developing common messaging for WAZA members worldwide to display. We would also love to see common messaging of individual animal identification signage to say whether it is CITES listed or not. Again, we can assist with a common format. In this way, we will also be able to authorize the use of the CITES logo for the use of WAZA members en masse.

Unfortunately, not all zoos and aquariums are members of WAZA nor adhere to your high standards. Some of them are used to illegally launder wild taken animals into commercial trade. These bad zoos and aquariums pull all of you down.

Can you influence nonmembers of WAZA, can you as an industry association help lift up the poor quality ones, and blow the whistle on the really bad ones, to help to close them down, stop the laundering and find alternative homes for their animals?

As mentioned earlier, since 2014 we have celebrated UN World Wildlife Day. The UN General Assembly asked the CITES Secretariat to facilitate the day, which we have gladly done.

The first observance of World Wildlife Day was in 2014, and we will celebrate it for the fifth time in 2018 under the theme ‘protecting big cats’ – and in an effort to reach as wide an audience as possible, the expanded definition of big cats is being used, which includes not only lion, tiger, leopard and jaguar – the 4 largest wild cats that can roar – but also cheetah, snow leopard, puma, and clouded leopard. We will also team up with Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival to organize an ‘International Film Festival for Big Cats’, with the winners to be announced in New York on 3 March.

I suspect most, if not all, of the zoos represented here today will house one or more big cats and we would welcome WAZA as a partner and for WAZA and its membership to use 3 March as your special day to spread the word about what you, as WAZA members, are doing for the world’s wildlife, both terrestrial and aquatic.


Colleagues, we all want to be able to enjoy wildlife in its natural habitat for generations to come. There are many threats to wildlife and the most immediate threat to many species is coming from the illegal trade in wildlife. We need ‘all hands on deck’ if we are going to win this fight and we must win it in quick time!

You all have a critical role to play in this collective endeavor and we look forward to working closely with WAZA and its membership in achieving our shared objectives.

Thank you.

1 Following on from a Resolution that was sponsored by Thailand, and adopted by consensus at the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (Bangkok, 2013), the UN General Assembly in December 2013 recognized 3 March, the date of adoption of CITES, as UN World Wildlife Day.

2 See Results of Ministerial Lekgotla on CITES and Agenda 2013 and the SDGs (submitted by South Africa).

3 In particular: national authorities being satisfied that “any living specimen will be so prepared and shipped so as to minimize the risk of injury, damage to heath or cruel treatment”; the proposed recipient of a living Appendix I specimen to be imported or taken from the high seas  “is suitably equipped to house and care for it”; any living Appendix II specimen taken from the high seas ‘will be so handled as to minimize the risk of injury, damage to health or cruel treatment’; during any period of transit, holding or shipment, living specimens “are properly cared for so as to minimize the risk of injury, damage to heath or cruel treatment”;  designated rescue centers are able “to look after the welfare of living specimens, particularly those that have been confiscated”; and trade in certain live animals is only to “appropriate and acceptable destinations.”

4 The World Animal Health Organization (OIE) established an Animal Welfare Working Group in 2002, which has adopted a number of non-binding animal welfare standards.

5 The Convention on Migratory Species and the International Whaling Commission.

6 See Resol. Conf. 11.20 Definition of the term 'appropriate and acceptable destinations'. There are also relevant Resolutions on Ranching and trade in ranched specimens, and the Disposal of confiscated live specimens of species.

7 See Resol. Conf. 10.21 (Rev. Cop16) Transport of live animals, which recommends Parties promote the full and effective use by Management Authorities of the IATA Live Animals Regulations (for animals), the IATA Perishable Cargo Regulations (for plants) and the CITES guidelines for the non-air transport of live wild animals and plants.

8 93% of legal trade under CITES is in plant specimens and 7% is in animal specimens

9 Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945

10 Decisions 17.118 to 17.119 Disposal of confiscated specimens