The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (“CITES”) is an international agreement that strives to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of those species. CITES was adopted by 80 countries in 1973. The text of the agreement provides for various measures to prevent the illicit trade in goods made of endangered species. Specifically, CITES imposes controls on all import, export, re-export, and introduction from the sea, of species covered by the agreement, to be authorized through a licensing system. The species that fall within the scope of CITES are listed and maintained in three appendices based on the degree of protection required.

U.S. Commercial Wildlife Trade Enforcement & Licensing

The United States is a signatory to CITES and has ratified CITES into U.S. law via the Endangered Species Act (50 CFR Part 23). The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish & Wildlife Service (“FWS”) is responsible for enforcing and licensing U.S. commercial wildlife trade pursuant to the Endangered Species Act.

In order to engage in international trade in any specimen covered within the scope of CITES, you must have either a valid CITES document or qualify for an exemption. CITES documents are issued by national CITES management authorities. In the United States, the FWS issues CITES documents. CITES documents must contain certain standardized information and include either a purpose code or a written description of the purpose in addition to a source code indicating the source of the specimen. Current CITES exemptions are detailed on FWS’ website.

Below is an example of a CITES document looks. Standardized information generally required includes:

  • Appendix – i.e. what species, subspecies, or population is listed
  • Applicant’s signature
  • Bill of lading, air waybill, or flight number
  • Dates of issue and expiration
  • Description of the specimen
  • Document number (unique control number)
  • Statement that live wildlife will be transported in a humane manner
  • Name and address of the exporter and importer
  • Purpose of the transaction
  • Quantity
  • Scientific name
  • Source of the specimen

CITES documents must contain certain standardized information and include either a purpose code or a written description of the purpose in addition to a source code indicating the source of the specimen. You can search your specimen on the CITES appendix to determine whether a CITES permit is necessary.

Purpose codes are standard identifiers of the purpose of a transaction. A CITES document must comprise of one of the following codes:

  • B – Breeding in captivity or artificial propagation
  • E – Education
  • G – Botanical garden
  • H – Hunting trophy
  • L – Law enforcement / judicial / forensic
  • M – Medical research (including biomedical research)
  • N – Reintroduction or introduction into the wild
  • P – Person
  • Q – Circus or traveling exhibition
  • S – Scientific
  • T – Commercial
  • Z – Zoo

Similarly, a source code must be listed indicating the source of the specimen. Common source codes include:

  • A – Artificially propagated plant
  • C – Bred-in-captivity wildlife
  • D – Bred-in-captivity or artificially propagated for commercial purposes
  • F – Captive-bred wildlife
  • I – Confiscated or seized specimen
  • O – Pre-convention specimen
  • R – Ranched wildlife
  • U – Source unknown (must be justified on the face of the CITES document
  • W – Specimen taken from the wild

Exemptions to a CITES document often require CITES exemption documents. Below is a listing of common exemptions and their corresponding CITES exemption document:

Exempt Activity

Corresponding Exemption Documentation

Artificially propagated plant from a country that has provided copies of the certificates, stamps, and seals of the Secretariat Phytosanitary certificate with CITES statement
Introduction from the sea under a pre-existing treaty, convention, or international agreement for that species Document required by applicable treaty, convention, or international agreement, if appropriate
Noncommercial loan, donation, or exchange of specimens between scientific institutions registered with the CITES Secretariat A label indicating CITES and the registration codes of both institutions and, in the United States, a CITES certificate of scientific exchange that registers the institution
Personally owned live wildlife for multiple cross-border movements CITES certificate of ownership


Separate and apart from the CITES licensing described above, companies or individuals engaged in commercial importation or exportation of shipments containing certain wildlife (including products made from wildlife) must obtain an Import/Export License (“I/E License”) from FWS. IE Licenses are issued via FWS’ Office of Law Enforcement. I/E Licenses must be obtained before commercially importing or exporting covered wildlife.

It is important to note that while the CITES licensing mechanism is narrowly tailored to only certain endangered species covered by the CITES appendices, the scope of the I/E licensing requirement is much broader and covers “wildlife [or fish] shipments for commercial purposes” generally. Fish or wildlife, according to the Endangered Species Act, is defined as:

  • “Any member of the animal kingdom, including without limitation any mammal, fish, bird (including any migratory, nonmigratory, or endangered bird for which protection is also afforded by treaty or other international agreement), amphibian, reptile, mollusk, crustacean, arthropod or other invertebrate, and includes any part, product, egg, or offspring thereof, or the dead body or parts thereof.”

Certain animals are exempt from I/E licensing requirements. These include:

If an I/E License is issued to you or your company, you will ensure that a copy of the I/E License is provided with each Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Fish or Wildlife (Form 3-177) document package submitted to FWS at the time of shipment.

What You Can Do

If you are importing or export wildlife or fish, or products made with wildlife or fish, you should:

  • Understand your Supply Chain – Violations of the Endangered Species Act or Lacey Act for failing to obtain a CITES document or an I/E License if necessary or otherwise engaging in the illicit trade of endangered species carries heavy civil penalties and criminal sanctions. One reason that U.S. importers and exporters inadvertently get caught up in the illicit trade of endangered species is their failure to properly understand their supply chain. Diaz Trade Law works with a global team of due diligence investigators and supply chain transparency researchers. If you require assistance understanding your supply chain, contact us today.
  • Vet Proposed Transactions – If you’re unsure whether a proposed import or export sale is subject to FWS enforcement or requires a CITES document or I/E License, reach out to us today. We can review and vet your proposed transaction to determine what actions you need to take.
  • Developed a Wildlife Trade Compliance Plan – A key foundation of proactive and effective wildlife trade compliance requires the development of a wildlife trade compliance plan. A wildlife trade compliance plan establishes a set of procedures for your organization to ensure that everyone is on the same page about how standard processes work, who is responsible for what, how to identify violations, what to do when violations occur, etc. Diaz Trade Law can assist you in developing or enhancing your wildlife trade compliance plan.
  • Train Your Employees – Violations of the Endangered Species Act carry heavy civil penalties and criminal sanctions. You can be proactive to ensure that your employees are aware of FWS licensing requirements by holding a training session. Diaz Trade Law has significant experience in training employees on a range of import and export compliance matters. If you would like to hold a wildlife trade compliance training, reach out to us today.
  • Obtain a CITES document if necessary – If your import or export contains product that is listed on CITES’ appendices, a CITES document obtained from an issuing authority such as FWS is likely required.
  • Obtain an Import-Export License if necessary – If your import or export contains commercial wildlife product, an I/E License may be necessary.

The duty to prevent the illicit trade in endangered species is everyone’s responsibility. As an importer or exporter of commercial wildlife or wildlife-derived product, you are on the forefront of the issue and may have the ability to identify parties engaged in illicit trade. If you would like to report a wildlife crime, you can do so at FWS is authorized to pay rewards for information or assistance that leads to an arrest, a criminal conviction, civil penalty, or forfeiture of seized property.

Contact Us

If you have questions about trade in wildlife and wildlife-derived product, including FWS enforcement and licensing, training, developing a compliance program, or vetting proposed transactions, contact Jennifer Diaz or Sharath Patil today at 305-456-3830 or