The red panda is one of thousands of animals protected from international trade by CITES. (Courtesy of Smithsonian National Zoo)

The eyes of the environmental world are turning to South Africa, where more than 2,000 government representatives from all over the world will be meeting later this week. The fates of elephants, pangolins, sharks and rays and hundreds of less charismatic (but no less threatened) species hang in the balance. This gathering is called CITES COP17, and it may be the most important conservation event that you’ve never heard of.

Here's everything you need to know:

What the heck is CITES?

CITES, which stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is one of the most important global wildlife conservation treaties. It focuses on the regulation of the international trade of endangered species, which can help guard against threats to the survival of threatened plants and animals. Currently (counting the newly inducted Tonga) there are 183 countries that participate in CITES, and they're called "Parties" of CITES.

What exactly is an “Endangered Species?”

There are several groups with their own definitions for threatened or endangered, and the terms are not interchangeable. The IUCN is an international organization of experts that evaluates the conservation status of species using technical criteria from the IUCN Red List. One IUCN Red List category is “Endangered.” Threatened, in IUCN Red List parlance, is a catch-all for species with Red List classifications of Vulnerable, Endangered, and/or Critically Endangered. IUCN Red List classifications do not carry the force of law or automatically require new regulations — they are purely evaluations of population status aimed at highlighting species of concern.

This is very different from a U.S. Endangered Species Act evaluation of threatened or endangered status. Under the ESA, an endangered species is one likely to become extinct soon, and a threatened species is one likely to become endangered soon.

What is CoP17?

About once every three years, the members of CITES meet to debate and vote on various proposals in what is called a “Conference of the Parties.” The 17th such meeting (CoP17) starts Sept. 24 in Johannesburg, South Africa. It runs through Oct. 5. #CoP17 is the official twitter hashtag for online discussions surrounding the meeting.

Do only governments participate in CITES conferences of the parties?

That depends on what you mean by “participate.” Many stakeholder groups, including environmental and animal welfare non-profits, join in discussions at these meetings and can offer recommendations. However, they do not vote.

How does CITES protect wildlife?

A threatened species can be “listed” on one of three CITES appendices. An Appendix I listing essentially means that commercial trade in that species between nations is banned. An Appendix II listing does not ban international trade, but requires participating nations to certify that trade is not harming wild populations through what is called a “non-detriment finding,” or NDF. An Appendix III listing means that one country is trying to protect a species found within their borders and is asking other CITES parties to help them protect that species through trade agreements.


The two-toed sloth was added to Appendix III at the request of Costa Rica. (Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images)

How does a species get listed on a CITES Appendix?

Long before a COP, parties start submitting their proposals. During committee meetings at a Conference of the Parties, these proposals are debated, and parties vote. A 2/3 majority is required to list a species on Appendix I or Appendix II. Any proposal voted for or against in committee can be brought up again in the closing session, which may result in earlier votes being overturned. This is only supposed to happen for close votes, and a party requesting a re-vote needs to present reasons for doing so.

What happens if a proposal is voted down?

Parties can propose a species for listing again at a future CoP if a proposal is not adopted. There are no limits on how many times this can be attempted.

Is a CITES listing the same thing as a law?

No. Parties are supposed to take complementary domestic action that support a listing after the meeting. Parties can also announce that they have reservations about a listing, and then they do not have to comply.

Wait, really? Countries can just decide not to follow a CITES listing?

Yes. For example, Japan, Iceland and Norway have taken reservations on listings of dolphins and whales. More recently, Guyana opted out of the 2013 CITES listings for sharks and rays. You can read a full list of countries that have taken reservations on CITES listings here.

Is it illegal to kill a CITES listed species?

No. CITES listings only affect international trade in listed species. Killing a listed species and selling it domestically is not covered by a CITES listing. Killing a listed species without the intention to sell it is also not covered by a CITES listing. Domestic laws may restrict these activities, but may not.

What species are proposed for CITES listings this year?

There are many proposals slated for discussion at CoP17, including proposals to list mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, fish, cephalopods and plants. These proposals affect more than 500 species. You can read the full list of proposals, including the recommendation of the CITES Secretariat concerning each proposal, here.

Does a CITES listing mean that a species is fully protected and no further conservation is required?

No. Lots more needs to be done after a CITES listing. However, a CITES listing can certainly help with the conservation of some threatened species by regulating or restricting their trade, and new listings are often worth celebrating.

How can I follow along?

Many of the participating governments and environmental non-profits will be tweeting from the meeting using hashtag #CoP17. Here is a Storify transcript featuring many of the twitter accounts that will be sharing information from CITES COP17. You can follow those accounts directly from the Storify transcript.

David Shiffman is a PhD candidate at the University of Miami, where he studies the ecology and conservation of sharks. He writes about marine science and conservation for the blog Southern Fried Science as well as for Scientific American, Slate, and Gizmodo. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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