Holding governments accountable for their commitments: CITES Review of Significant Trade for a very high-volume taxon


  • CITES Review of Significant Trade (RST) is not improving implementation as intended.
  • Our seahorse work shows that CITES needs to make five improvements to RST:
    • Move beyond requesting outputs (e.g. reports) to recommend meaningful action.
    • Scrutinize and track export suspensions declared during the process.
    • Formally involve species experts, and fund such experts.


Actions for conservation and sustainable use need to be judged on their efficacy in achieving declared objectives. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is unusual among global agreements because it has teeth; a process called the Review of Significant Trade (RST) allows disciplinary action in the form of trade suspensions directed at countries that do not meet their obligations.

We used seahorses (Hippocampus spp., 46 species), which are traded in large numbers under CITES restrictions, to identify best practices in the RST process. We drew on published documents and our own direct engagement with CITES for 20+ years. Three rounds of RST across eight species involved a total of 78 countries. Many countries failed to engage with the RST or provided very little information. CITES gave recommendations for action to four countries across five species, although other countries were probably overlooked.

We make four observations that raise concerns about RST effectiveness: (1) the RST process did not clearly lead to sustainable trade, its very raison d’être; (2) some major exporting Parties were released from the RST by declaring unreliable export suspensions; (3) recommendations for action under RST were constrained by precedents for other taxa and lacked metrics; (4) CITES is not required to consult taxon experts in evaluating progress. CITES recently revised the RST process but more change is needed if countries are to meet their obligations under the Convention. We propose five actions, mapping onto our seahorse observations, that CITES could take to make RST action more effective for all taxa, and reduce ineffectual trade suspensions.

Foster, S.J. & A.C.J. Vincent (2021). Holding governments accountable for their commitments: CITES Review of Significant Trade for a very high-volume taxon. Global Ecology and Conservation 27:e01572. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2021.e01572.