CITES and the Illegal Trade in Wildlife


Karl Ammann, National Geographic

Date Published

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement supported by 180 governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of endangered species.

But is it doing the job?

In 2000 the CITES Secretariat announced that the parties to the convention were no longer required to send export and import permits for wildlife trade to its Geneva headquarters for inspection. Member countries were required only to report their annual trade data.

However, such reports are generally two to three years old before they are published on the CITES trade database. The information does not include important information which would help with enforcement of the convention, or with investigations of any infringements.

Below is an example of the CITES trade database statistics, which are invariably out of date by the time they are published. This example shows both chimpanzees and gorillas being shipped to China from Guinea.

(see link for this chart)

The Dirtiest of Conventions

A year ago, while producing a documentary for ZDF television in Germany, we interviewed the head of the CITES management authority of Guinea on the very widespread illegal trade in all kinds of wildlife from that African country, especially involving apes which are given the highest level of protection afforded by the convention. He stated for the record:

“CITES c’est la plus sale des conventions en ce qui concerne la falsification the la fraude”. Translation: CITES is the dirtiest of the conventions when it comes to the falsification of permits and fraud.

In the case of Guinea, a major issue was the illegal shipment of over 130 chimpanzee babies to China. (This Guardian newspaper article reported 130 chimps being smuggled to China over three years.)

Most of these babies were provided by capture teams specifically sent to abduct young chimpanzees from the wild. It is a form of harvesting which typically requires the slaughter of a number of adults before a youngster can be seized. Much of the time the shotguns used to kill the mothers also end up killing the babies clinging to them, so there is a lot of collateral killing before a live baby can be seized.

Export from Guinea of babies caught in this manner started with 2 chimps in 2007. This climbed to 8 in 2008, 29 in 2009, and then in 2010 the flood gates opened with 61 infants captured for export.

On the buyers side of this trade, official import data reported to CITES by China in 2011 listed 5 chimps from Guinea’s neighbor Sierra Leone. (

There are strong suggestions that more chimps were imported in this way in 2013, including possibly to a zoo in Shanghai:

All of these apes were exported under the pretense that they were born in captivity – which meant they could be traded legally in terms of CITES – but not one of these animals was conceived in any kind of captive setting.

China apparently issued import permits for these shipments using the CITES category for captive-bred (C), which is where the fraud started.

This brings us back to the above reference concerning import and export permits no longer needing to be sent to Geneva for scrutiny by CITES. If these permits had been sent to Geneva as was required prior to the 2000 directive, the scam would have been stopped in its tracks before the first export, somebody at the Secretariat would, hopefully, have been obliged to tell China and Guinea that there are no CITES-approved captive breeding facilities in Guinea for any apes or any other CITES-listed wildlife, and as such these transactions were all illegal.

Of course the CITES management and scientific authorities of China could have come to the same conclusion by spending five minutes on the internet and establishing these facts.

Various Chinese officials we interviewed claimed they assumed that the Guinea authorities were being truthful when they declared that the chimps were born in captivity, and apparently they had no interest in pursuing the matter any further.

The fact that the importing country did not check the CITES trade database to see if any CITES-approved breeding facility for the species existed in the exporting country should have been raised by CITES itself in its 2011 mission report – the fact that it did not do so smells like a cover-up.

By pretending that these transactions are above board allowed such exports and imports to go on for years.


Renting charismatic wildlife to zoos can be very lucrative. One only has to consider how much money is made by China renting pandas to zoos worldwide. But whereas the panda rentals may be technically legal within the terms of the CITES convention, they may also be creating a precedent for more dubious exchanges.

At the CITES conference of Parties in Bangkok recently, a member of the Democratic Republic of Congo delegation told us in an interview that his country was thinking of starting similar zoo or scientific exchanges with China, shipping apes in return for lucrative fees.

Posing as potential internet-based buyers, we managed to get copies of some of the wildlife trade permits issued by Guinea, the same permits that are no longer required to be sent to CITES for inspection. There were many obvious irregularities. Most of the addresses of the exporting dealers which we cross-checked in Guinea did not exist. One exporter for eight chimps was listed as Bird Breeding Farm, which is a DRC-registered dealership. We suspect that what was shipped to Shanghai were chimpanzees from DRC which were put on a flight in Kinshasa with a falsified Guinea export permit.

From our visit to Shanghai we managed to get hold of some of the feces from these same chimps, which we had analyzed for DNA. The analysis suggests that the chimps came from populations east of Guinea, possibly from the DRC and other central African countries. Gorillas shipped to China with Guinea exports were also likely smuggled in this way – especially as there are no gorillas in Guinea.

We tried to visit the street addresses of the importing facilities on other permits we obtained from dealers, and again found that they did not exist.

Fate of the Chimps in China

Once the chimps are in place in the training facilities at various zoos in China, they may be required to earn big money for their new owners. Initiating any CITES enforcement or corrective measures to rescue them becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible – because according to the CITES convention, the illegally smuggled apes are now the property of the importing country. The Parties to CITES, the end consumers and the dealers involved, know that they are dealing with a toothless tiger which will not bite.

From the CITES Convention text :

Article VIII: Measures to Be Taken by the Parties

1. The Parties shall take appropriate measures to enforce the provisions of the present Convention and to prohibit trade in specimens in violation thereof. These shall include measures:

(a) to penalize trade in, or possession of, such specimens, or both; and

(b) to provide for the confiscation or return to the State of export of such specimens.

In cases like these ape exports, under Article VIII of CITES, member governments are obliged to prosecute offending traders and officials based on illegal activity, and then they must confiscate the animals in question and discuss with the countries of origin a possible return of the apes. That is the theory. In practice there is resistance at every level, starting with the CITES Secretariat which will not push the Parties via the Standing committee, to have this article enforced.

The result is total impunity on every level, with dealers running circles around CITES and the control framework. Lack of enforcement of Article VIII encourages illegal trade, as does the lack of scrutiny of the permits prior to shipment.

Another restriction involving CITES I listed species states that they cannot be traded for mainly commercial reasons. However, we established on camera in our undercover investigation in Guinea that dealers pay around U.S. $ 5,000 in bribes for a falsified CITES export permit. Isn’t that where the commercialization starts?

The local market prices for a baby chimp in Conakry are around U.S. $1,000. The export price for a pair is $15,000, while zoos in China have paid the importing dealers around $40,000 for the same pair. Not a primarily commercial transaction?

But wait, it gets better. A lot of these animals end up in dark training facilities at the back of arenas which are technically within the zoo premises and where there are daily performances, with young chimps and orangutans often the key attraction. Some of these circus-like shows are managed by an outside contractor who trains the incoming animal performers. As in Guangzhou Zoo in Southern China, visitors pay extra to attend these shows.

When we have questioned CITES officials about this, they insist that breeding and education are the main motives for shipment of these animals to China.

Ultimately, Guinea was suspended by the CITES standing committee, on the recommendation from the Secretariat during the recent meeting of the Parties in Thailand. It finally dawned on the Secretariat that a lot of the evidence in the case of such animal exports was now outside its control and some action needed to be taken.

However, there were no sanctions proposed in the context of China. The Chinese authorities clearly turned a blind eye to these illegal imports and corruption cannot be excluded as a key motive, not only at the exporting but also the importing end. Several zoos ended up as the major beneficiaries of these illegal transactions.

Missing Permits

Despite the Chinese authorities informing us that they supplied the missing ape import and export permits to Geneva, the Secretariat denies their existence. If the permits could be found, they would allow the importers and exporters to be pinpointed and would be the basis for the member states involved to try to live up to the terms of Article VIII of the convention.

In the case of 10 gorillas which China says it imported in 2010, it is not possible to find any evidence of permits having been obtained, other than for one Chinese zoo announcing the imminent arrival of a gorilla. This zoo has never had any gorillas in its exhibits. The chance is high that all these gorillas perished. If the importing party was known from either the import or export permit, it would be possible to ask questions about the fate of these great apes.

Since Guinea dealers now no longer can get export permits from their own authorities, they offer them out of Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, or the DRC. With a bribe price per permit of up to U.S. $5,000, can it be that corrupt CITES officials can be found in any neighboring country, as well as a little further afield?

Recently I read a report on the trade in CITES-regulated reptile skins (mostly reticulated pythons and water lizards). Having done a film on the subject, I have for some time now been very aware to what extent fraud is also at play in the context of these exports.

Indonesia produces a lot more than the 150,000 python skins which are part of its quota. Additionally, a lot of the fashion houses like Gucci want their skins tanned in Italy, producing a higher quality product than what comes from the tanneries in Indonesia. Indonesia does not allow the export of raw skins. So laundering these skins via third parties like Laos or Singapore effectively increases the quota, and also allows the clients to get what they want – never mind that a range of national laws are infringed, making many of these export permits illegal.

Never mind also that some 100,000 skins coming from Laos are exported as CITES Category C (captive-born in an approved facility, of which none exists in Laos). This same report talks about “CITES permits of convenience,” which is a term which today can be applied to a lot of CITES permits.

While discussing national laws and the infractions of them and how they potentially impact the validity of permits, let’s talk about another common infraction of the CITES convention.

I have a copy of the capture laws of the DR Congo, which have not been amended since colonial times and are extremely strict – for example no firearms are to be used in any capture operation, the requirement of regional authorities to sign off on any capture permit issued in advance, and so on.

The DRC is a big exporter of primates but also of African grey parrots. Knowing the country and its administration well, there is no doubt in my mind that national laws are infringed upon every step of the way. That probably makes every CITES export permit suspect, including those for the annual 5,000-bird quota of African Grey parrots for which several traders claimed to us on hidden camera that the government minister responsible collects a bribe of U.S.$15 per parrot.

The question that begs to be answered is to what extent the permit administration and control of import and export permits is now actively encouraging the illegal trade, with every second-rate dealer knowing how to beat the system and solicit cooperation from national CITES officials to do so.

Foxes Watching Hen Houses

In many of these poorly governed developing countries, it seems that there are foxes appointed to watch the hen houses.

We believe that one CITES official working in Geneva and taking advantage of the latest scanning technology could easily scrutinize all the export and import permits issued for CITES I-listed species. If this was done based on sending scanned copies of an import permit the moment it is issued (the import permits are meant to come before any export permits and after due diligence), a lot of these fraudulent transactions could be stopped before they take place.

Such a safeguard would have put an end to the illegal ape exports from Guinea in 2007 before the first shipment took place.

The big question, however, is whether the majority of the CITES Parties want more control, or whether they are complacent about the current laissez-fair approach, which also apparently and conveniently benefits many of the responsible officials. Is it more about a lot of international travel, attending back-slapping conferences and meetings with five-star hotel accommodation and lots of shopping, than it is about curtailing the illegal trade in wildlife?

Since the taxpayer in the developed world still carries most of the financial burden to keep this system going, perhaps it is time to confront them with some of these realities. CITES could be an effective tool in dealing with many aspects of the illegal wildlife trade if the Parties and the Secretariat were not stuck in defending a status quo which is no longer in the interest of biodiversity conservation and more concerned with trade at pretty much any cost.


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