Ever travel beyond Canada and get questioned at the border? Guess what, so do animals! Border authorities are very interested in animals—both living animals and museum specimens.

Two articulated sperm whale skeletons (Physeter macrocephalus) in the exhibition Whales Tohorā.
Two sperm whale skeletons (Physeter macrocephalus) from New Zealand are coming to the Canadian Museum of Nature as part of the exhibition Whales Tohorā, with the help of a CITES permit. Image: © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2008

They have many good reasons to be interested. One of those reasons is the threat that is posed to some wild plants and animals by international trade—that’s people removing them from their natural habitat and selling them to markets in other countries.

Protecting wild plants and animals from global trade is a job that no country can do alone. Unless we all work together, we won’t be able to protect these species. That’s where CITES comes in.

The name sounds a bit like “cities”, the places where most of us live. But CITES is short for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES sets controls on the movement of animal and plant species that are, or may be, threatened due to excessive commercial exploitation.

This United Nations convention came into effect in 1975 as a result of growing awareness that international trade was endangering more and more wild species everywhere on the planet. CITES is an international consensus on protecting wild animals and plants.

Its aim is to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of these species in the wild, and it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 33 000 species of animals and plants.

Currently CITES includes more than 170 member states. One of the first countries to ratify the Convention was Canada, where it came into effect on July 3, 1975. It is believed that only one species protected by CITES, the Spix’s Macaw, has become extinct in the wild as a result of trade since the Convention entered into effect.

A Tasmanian wolf (Thylacinus cynocephalus) in its case.
This Tasmanian wolf (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was exhibited at the museum in 2011 in Extreme Mammals. It, too, required a CITES permit. Image: Russ Brooks © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Canadian Museum of Nature does scientific research as well as educational programming, and is often required to transport specimens across international borders. Many of these, the museum applies for permits at least two months in advance.

Permits must be applied for separately in each country that shares the border to be crossed. Each country has its own unique formats, regulations and departments of government that are responsible. One of my jobs is to ensure that the correct applications are made and that the information given is correct.

It takes me some time to get all this info together! Of course, each specimen requires a proper scientific identification. But the CITES authorities also want to know the origin of each specimen. Where was it caught? When? What is the purpose of its transport? Where is it crossing the border? When? What is its value?

A male proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) in its case.
This male proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) specimen is another exhibit from Extreme Mammals that required a CITES permit. Image: Russ Brooks © Canadian Museum of Nature

If the specimens are in a traveling exhibition that will travel to a foreign country only temporarily, all this work is done twice—once when the specimens first cross the border and again when they return.

Take the ginormous traveling exhibition Whales Tohorā, which is coming to the Canadian Museum of Nature from New Zealand in March 2012. Many rare specimens of whales and artefacts made from whale parts are featured in this blockbuster show, which Canadians would not otherwise be able to see. Seventy-five of them are from species that are on the CITES list, and the permits are underway to be sure they can make it into Canada to the benefit of Canadians.

So, just like when you leave Canada or return from abroad, animals need to have their paperwork in order when they come to the border. A CITES permit is kind of like a passport for species at risk to travel internationally, but it’s only given to animals who travel for good reason… such as scientific and educational purposes!