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CITES and education – a potent tool?

Volume 7 Number 2 - October 2010

Noel McGough

French: CITES et éducation – un outil puissant ?

Spanish: CITES y la educación – ¿es una herramienta poderosa?


CITES is sometime seen by botanic gardens as a barrier to obtaining and exchanging plant material but, as Noel McGough argues, in addition to its role in regulating international movement of plants, CITES and Target 11 of the GSPC can be used as a potent tool in telling the story of wild plants in our daily lives.

Outreach from a prison cell

Swedish jail cells are quite comfortable, the furnishings minimalist with a hint of IKEA. Well, at least the holding cell at Stockholm Airport was, as we were given a  tour of the Customs facilities by Svante Hull, a customs officer who specializes in CITES. With Madeleine Groves from Kew and Guy Clarke, from the UK Customs CITES Team at London Heathrow Airport, we were on our way to the annual meeting of some 200 Swedish customs, police and judiciary officers, where we had been asked to carry out some training on CITES and plants. During the meeting I took the opportunity to meet representatives of Swedish botanic gardens to explore how they could interact with CITES on a national and global level.

CITES is often seen by botanic gardens as a barrier to movement of plant material, but it can provide a novel mechanism for capacity building and training.  Frustratingly, CITES remains dominated by animal trade issues and the organization’s limited resources tend to be concentrated in this area. This makes it vital for all of us interested in plants, who support Target XI of the GSPC – No species of wild flora endangered by international trade – to push the essential role of botanic gardens in conservation.

Most CITES staff have had limited access to training on plants, but botanic gardens make ideal venues for training workshops.  UK Customs and Police hold regular training sessions for their officers on the practical implementation of CITES, the legislation involved, basic identification skills, the plants and animals covered by the Convention, what form these are traded in and how they might be smuggled.

The training is held in the Herbarium, which inspires a sense of wonder at the diversity of plant material and the science that is needed to support the vital base block of conservation – putting the right name to a plant. The officers get a quick introduction to taxonomy and see a wide range of plant diversity in the living collections. Next we stun them with the many different forms in which wild plants are traded – and then relent and give a simple risk analysis of the types they might encounter. By the end of the week, even the most hardened customs officer with long experience of drug smuggling is enthused by the diversity of plants and the resources botanic gardens can provide to help them do their jobs. We shamelessly promote the role of botanic gardens and find the officers often return with their families to explore the gardens. 

To help CITES workers address the problems of plant trade we have developed a range of Users’ Guides which explain the application of CITES to the major plant groups, in a simple manual format combined with Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. All are produced in Spanish, French and English. We make sure no customs or police officer leaves Kew without a set (those with restricted luggage allowance get CD-ROMs).

In Poland, the Warsaw University Botanic Garden has produced an impressive range of CITES Training Manuals and CD-ROMs for the CITES workers, including translating a wood identification manual originated by Environment Canada. Hanna Werblan-Jakubiec and Marcin Zych have also customized training workshops for Polish customs officers. 

Dogs, gardens and smuggled plants

Steve Meredith of the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide (BGA) reports a successful week-long schools programme with the Australian Quarantine Service to raise awareness of the illegal import of plants. Quarantine officers brought in trained dogs used at Australian airports to detect fresh and dried plant material. Seeing the dogs in action roused the interest of students and a weeds and endangered plants walk in the garden reinforced the message. The Quarantine Service now runs a regular station at the world environment day event at BGA using an actor in a dog suit – not quite the real thing but it gets the story across!

The CoP experience

Training students in CITES can be fun, using recreation of real-life scenarios. Margarita Clemente Munoz, late of Cordoba Botanic Garden, Spain, has at the International University of Andalusia developed a Master’s Degree in Management, Access and Conservation of Species in Trade: The International Framework, which leads the world in CITES education, has trained 235 students from 68 countries and celebrates its 10th course in 2011. With Margarita we frequently recreate a CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP), where decisions are made on listing new species for regulation. We look at proposals, such as listing all species of Cedrela (South American Cedar) on Appendix II (regulation of trade by permit based on statement of sustainability by exporting countries – what CITES term Non-Detriment Findings).

We divide students into: Parties (countries) proposing – the Proponents; Parties opposing; Undecided Parties; Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) supporting (we call them Treehuggers International), and timber trader groups that oppose it (the Chainsaw Alliance). Then we pick a strong chairperson from the student body and begin.

The Proponents introduce the proposal and ask for the Conference’s support. Opposing countries criticize the aims of the Proponents, lack of scientific data and poor consultation with range states, expound on the adequacy of existing control mechanisms in exporting countries, and claim that branding the wood an endangered species will kill off trade! The NGOs grow restless but are not allowed to speak until the Parties have finished – they attempt to interrupt and calls are made for the expulsion of Treehuggers International.  One country calls for a vote to close the debate and for a secret vote on the listing. Calls are made from the floor that some countries lack approved credentials, so the Chair consults the CITES Secretariat (tutor) and voting papers are only given to countries with valid credentials. NGOs chant slogans and are expelled. The secret vote gives a simple majority in favour of listing Cedrela on CITES – but it does not pass as a two-thirds majority is required.

The role-play ends with students still hotly debating, and the cries: Is that all the time we get? How do we get more science in? The Chair wouldn’t let me speak! It’s not fair!!

A smuggler for a day

Another role-play breaks the class into: customs officials at an airport terminal, smugglers, and CITES Scientific Authority staff.  The smugglers hide controlled and non-controlled specimens in their luggage. The customs officials can ask 10 questions of the passengers, then have 10 minutes to search their bags and pass on any items of concern to the scientists with a list of questions. The scientists have 45 minutes to answer, but cannot give additional information. This is crucial as very often the ‘custom officers’ forget key questions – for example, would you stand by your identification in a court of law?  The customs officers then present their findings. Finally the tutor goes through what was smuggled, what was missed and any problems with identification or interpretation of the CITES listings.

Friday afternoon

Botanic gardens play a major role in holding and caring for seized or confiscated plants. Invariably consignments of seized material arrive late on Friday afternoon resulting in a hectic rush to document and secure the plants. The USA operates an extensive Plant Rescue Center Program to care for confiscated plants. Gardens can apply to the US Fish and Wildlife Service for registration. Plants may be incorporated in garden collections for display, education and propagation, but remain US property, not to be sold or disposed of – though propagules of the plants belong to the garden. In 1994–2009, over 100,000 plants were placed in US rescue centres. This material provides an important resource for education and CITES outreach for botanic gardens like the United States Botanic Garden, in the grounds of the US Capitol in Washington.  The Daily Californian, the student newspaper of the University of California at Berkeley, has published an article outlining its role in the PRC, with plant-trade stories.

Sustainable use helped by horticulture

CITES can help build partnerships for botanic gardens supporting GSPC targets, reinforcing the value of horticultural expertise in planning for sustainable use. In 2009, scientists and horticulturalists from Tbilisi Botanic and Institute of Botany in Georgia teamed up with Microsoft Research Cambridge and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to create a sustainable harvesting model for Galanthus woronowii – the Georgian snowdrop. A CITES Project, funded by the Netherlands, addressed concerns that the 15–18 million Georgian bulbs exported annually might be unsustainable. Using the model, the group predicted that the snowdrop populations could easily support commercial harvesting levels of around 15 million bulbs a year, securing the trade of this valuable commodity for the country.

The team surveyed the national status of plant populations, cultivation and harvesting methods and then pioneered a computational approach to estimate the abundance and distribution of bulbs, allowing an overall quota and regional quotas to be recommended. The findings were well received by the Georgian authorities and most recommendations, including preventing harvesting from sites of high conservation value, were implemented.

Snooker cues and orangutans

The taxa listed on CITES provide great tales for outreach programmes. What do snooker cues, Scrabble piece holders, futon beds and orangutans have in common? They all share CITES listing and indeed a forest. The wood products are routinely made from species of Gonystylus (Ramin) from the swamp forests of Malaysia and Indonesia, habitat they share with orangutans. Ramin is one of the highest value CITES timbers in trade. The last Conference of the Parties saw successful listing of Aniba rosaeodora on CITES Appendix II.  Rosewood oil is an essential ingredient of many high-end perfumes from Chanel to LUSH cosmetics, and Brazil is now the last remaining source. The tracing of the oil’s journey from Brazilian forest to perfume house is of great interest. Pau Brazil (Caesalpina echinata) is the national tree of Brazil and gave the country its name. Exploited for dye from the 1500s, the wood later became the material of choice for fine musical bow making. Now CITES listed, its trade is closely regulated. CITES regulated trade in Candelilla wax from Euphorbia antisyphilica, wild collected in Mexico, supplies makers of lipstick, chewing gum, fruit waxes, lubricant for missiles and more. The Seychelles recently listed Coco-de-mer (Lodoicea maldivica), due to increasing demand for the kernel as an aphrodisiac in China, while the Russian Federation listed the Korean Pine (Pinus koraiensis) to help protect the habitat of the Amur Tiger. These are just few examples of CITES listings whose story can be told in a botanic garden context. 

Other initiatives include the UK University of Leicester Botanic Garden’s fictional country, Botanica, where students confront the challenges posed by a bid to host the Olympic Games, including trade issues. And Leslie Goddard reports that The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, USA, has an exciting travelling exhibition on endangered trees, and the threat from international trade. Developed for arboreta, public gardens and nature centres, with interactive displays and education materials that can be locally adapted, it will improve public understanding of the value of trees and the threats they face.

Make your work easier

Botanic Gardens can use CITES as a window on international trade, an outreach tool that crosses borders and covers important products. By telling that story we can help implement national/global conservation strategies while placing our gardens centre stage. And it’s important that botanic gardens make use of special exemptions available to them – as a CITES registered institution you can exchange and dispatch material to other registered gardens using a simple label system, no need for full permits. Details are in BGCI’s “A CITES Manual for Botanic Gardens”.

Keep in touch

Botanic gardens are increasingly involved in CITES issues, and help to implement Target 11 of the GSPC. As CITES seeks to address trade in timber and medicinal plants, gardens can take a greater role in bringing about sustainable use. But botanic gardens seldom promote their own work and expertise – post-2010 we need to tell more of our success stories and create new ones.


L’objectif XI de la GSPC préconise: aucune espèce de flore sauvage n’est menacée par le commerce international.

Le principal outil pour réguler le commerce des espèces menacées, ou potentiellement menacées, est la Convention sur le commerce international des espèces de faune et de flore sauvages menacées d’extinction (CITES), qui vient juste de célébrer ses 35 ans. La CITES est parfois perçue, par les jardins botaniques, comme une barrière à l’obtention et l’échange de matériel végétal. Mais, en plus de son rôle dans le contrôle de la circulation de plantes au niveau international, elle peut être utilisée comme un outil puissant pour raconter l’histoire de plantes sauvages dans notre vie quotidienne : une intrigante histoire de commerce, des forêts et déserts aux médecines, en passant par le mobilier, les produits cosmétiques, les jardins et l’industrie, chaque étape étant suivie par un système de permis et contrôlée par un réseau mondial d’autorités de la CITES et d’agences habilitées. La CITES permet également aux jardins botaniques de créer des liens avec les politiques et les industriels et de les mettre en relation avec de nouveaux groupes d’intérêts par le biais de formations. Elle offre aussi la possibilité d’organiser des portes ouvertes pour les agents de police, des douanes, les inspecteurs en charge des espèces sauvages et les membres de ministères gouvernementaux qui ont une connaissance limitée des plantes et des jardins botaniques.


La meta XI de la Estrategia Global para la Conservación de Plantas (GSPC) menciona: que ninguna de las especies en peligro de las floras silvestres serán dañadas por el comercio internacional.

La herramienta principal para la regulación del comercio internacional de las especies en peligro o amenazadas es la Convención o Tratado Internacional de las especies silvestres de la Flora y la Fauna (CITES), la cual ha celebrado ya 35 años de su existencia. CITES es algunas veces vista por los jardines botánicos como una barrera para obtener plantas como material de intercambio, no obstante juega un papel importante en la regulación y  movimiento de como estas plantas silvestres pueden ser usadas, lo que la conlleva a ser una herramienta potente para dar a conocer la historia de ellas y su uso durante nuestra vida cotidiana. Una historia fascinante o enigmática son los pasos que las plantas tienen desde su hábitat, el bosque o desiertos, hasta llegar a ser medicamentos, muebles, cosméticos, plantas decorativas y productos industriales. Cada uno de los eventos es monitoreado a nivel global por una red internacional de las autoridades o agencias responsables de CITES, la cual permite a los jardines botánicos, tomadores de decisiones y a personal industrial que se unan a esta red. CITES ofrece a los nuevos grupos interesados entrenamientos en los cuales se ofrecen cursillos o talleres (open days) [días abiertos], impartidos para la policía, agentes de aduana, inspectores de reservas naturales y ministros del gobierno, quienes tienen poco o restringido conocimiento en plantas [silvestres] y jardines botánicos.



Noel McGough
Head of Conventions and Policy Section
Royal Botanic Gardens
Kew TW9 3AB, UK