Are conservation and sustainable use opposing concepts?


23 Jan 2023

Written by Dr Julia Baum

The concept of conservation seems at an acute crossroads (yet again) the past few months.

A gap is further widening between debates that were taking place at international platforms. CITES COP19 (the 19th Conference of the Parties of CITES) during November 2022 mostly maintained or increased barriers to the trade in many wild species and wildlife products (read more in the AWEI blog here). Furthermore, the inclusion of socio-economic criteria for amendment discussions has been rejected.

Yet, CBD COP15 (the 15th Conference of the Parties of CBD) during December 2022 adopted the decision CBD/COP/15/L.5 supporting sustainable wildlife management (read more in the AWEI blog here). It further agreed on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework which includes several socio-economic measures for tackling biodiversity loss (read more in the AWEI blog here).

Doesn’t this mean that we are confronted with and taking decisions based on differing definitions and understandings of conservation (and sustainable use) as an overall concept? Where does this discrepancy come from?

Let us look into the history of both Conventions for a moment…


CITES: the global treaty on species conservation

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is a multilateral agreement which aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

It was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at a meeting of members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The agreement then entered into force on 1 July 1975. Today, 184 member countries are participating.

Originally, CITES was drafted because at the time many animal and plant species were being over-exploited through commercial trade, for example trade of fur based on the demand by Western countries for luxury goods. This was seen as a major threat to their survival. Such trade therefore started being assessed and regulated for addressing wild population depletion. More recently, CITES also covers species which previously were considered unremarkable, for example manta rays.   

CITES works through a system of permits and certificates that ensure legality, sustainability, and traceability of said trade across international borders. This currently aims to protect more than 38,000 species which are listed in the CITES Appendices, to varying degrees.

CITES divides species into three Appendices (main categories) depending on the level of protection they need.

1) Appendix I:  species most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. Trade in specimens is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.

2) Appendix II: species not necessarily now threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade is closely controlled.

3) Appendix III: species protected in at least one country which asked other CITES Parties for assistance in controlling the trade.

Specimens for trade can include a wide range of items such as the whole animal/plant (alive or dead) but also products e.g. leatherwork or cosmetics that contain a part or derivative of the listed species.


CBD: the global treaty on sustainable development

CBD (the Convention on Biological Diversity) is the first global agreement to cover all aspects of biological diversity. It was conceived by UN member states and signed by government leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Today, 196 nations are participating.

The agreement is dedicated to promoting sustainable development and recognizes that biological diversity is about more than species and their habitats. It includes people and our need for a healthy environment and resources to live and to economically and socially develop.

CBD states three main objectives:

  1. The conservation of biological diversity
  2. The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity
  3. The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources


Conservation as a concept

CITES has internationally been criticized that by design and intent it focuses mainly on trade at the individual species level to prevent unsustainable use without addressing overarching contextual challenges, such as habitat loss or food security.

Species listings which incur trade regulations or barriers may impact local livelihoods to the extent that a nature-based value chain is no longer viable or too complicated to practice. The local trader may then switch to another occupation or land use. Not taking such challenges into account can lead to overall species habitat destruction and therefore unintended further threatening of the species population.

In some instances, listings of flora and fauna have also been demonstrated to rather increase financial speculation in certain markets for high value species which led to increased exploitation, for example the South African white rhinoceros. Although previously addressed, shaping market demand remains a challenge under CITES and it seems that socio-economic criteria for decision making should more strongly be considered while listing species.  

CITES in its glossary which summarizes key terms used in CITES processes does not include an explicit definition of ‘conservation’. However, it is working with conservation as a concept that is rather protective and narrow compared to the CBD approach.

Interestingly enough, as mentioned, CITES was established by IUCN members and their current definition of conservation originating from 1980, as set out in the IUCN World Conservation Strategy, is as follows:

“Conservation is the management of human use of the biosphere so that it may yield the greatest sustainable benefit to present generations while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations. Thus, conservation is positive, embracing preservation, maintenance, sustainable utilization, restoration, and enhancement of the natural environment.”

This definition actually aligns closely with the above-stated overall objectives of the CBD and the understanding of sustainable use based on which CBD functions. Sustainable use hereby means the “use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations” (CBD website).


Sustainable use as a concept

An application of several signatory parties for taking into account socio-economic factors was declined at CITES COP19 in November.

Namibia had introduced CoP19 Doc.87.1 titled “Proposed amendments to Resolution Conf. 9.24 (Rev. CoP17) on the recognition of livelihoods and food security in proposals for amendment to the Appendices”.

Namibia expanded that the purpose of this was to make people integral to the functioning of CITES, rather than side-lined. Botswana, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Japan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe supported the proposal, emphasizing that communities living alongside CITES-listed species should benefit from trade in them.

The proposal states that “According to Resolution Conf. 9.24 (Rev. CoP17), the inclusion of species in the Appendices follows biological and trade criteria even though socio-economic factors should be taken into account […]

Livelihoods have been identified as contributing to income, health and food security. Apart from these direct benefits, they contribute to species conservation, resilience to climate change, and capacity building.  […]

In order for CITES to respond to the complex web of socio-ecological interactions, mere reliance on biological and trade criteria as stipulated in the Annexes of Resolution Conf. 9.24 (Rev. CoP17) is no longer sufficient since they do not address impacts on livelihoods and food security.”

With 31 in favour, 86 against and 11 abstentions, the proposal to amend Resolution Conf. 9.24 (Rev. CoP18) in document CoP19 Doc. 87.1 was rejected.

The outcomes of CBD COP15 in December stand in contrast to these trends at CITES.  The majority of CBD participants signed off the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework which has the overall vision of “living in harmony with nature”. The latest version of the Framework promotes four long-term goals for 2050 and 22 targets for 2030. These targets cover a wide range of topics, such as expanding area-based conservation measures, sustainable food production, and eliminating public subsidies that harm nature.

Similarly, the decision on Sustainable Wildlife Management (CBD/COP/15/L.5) makes clear that “sustainable wildlife management can significantly contribute to biodiversity conservation.” Using wild species in turn encourages the conservation or restoration of their habitats and the maintenance of associated ecological systems and services.



The scope of definitions and understandings of ‘conservation’ and ‘sustainable use’ play a key role in continuously shaping operational frameworks for international decision making which can lead to adopting practices that are relevant to current real-world situations.

Conservation that focuses on individual wild animals and plants is highly relevant in order to protect them based on their intrinsic value and as keystone species in habitats. Yet, more traditional concepts of species conservation, for example fenced-off protected areas funded by governments, are not able to keep up with global threats and pressures anymore. In many cases, they are underfunded or entirely dependent on donor support and can also not deliver solutions for addressing overarching contextual problems of societal well-being.  

Conservation, however, nowadays needs to be socially and economically viable to persist. So that it is not being replaced with other anthropogenic activities and land uses. So that landscapes emerge and remain as mixed models for both humans and wildlife.

Conservation activities need to provide contributions and solutions to health, poverty reduction, livelihoods and businesses, education, food security, and much more.

Circling back to the discussed discrepancies between international debates, conservation and sustainable use continue to occur as being opposing concepts. Are they not rather ends of the same range along which we can find compromises and combined beneficial solutions?

The global community is partially on a path to adopting an understanding of the need for sustainable management of any resource (whether natural or man-made; whether social, environmental, or economic). This is for example anchored in the Sustainable Development Goal 12 of the UN 2030 Agenda which aims to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”.

Yet, there is a strong need for clarification and alignment of definitions used on different platforms. And subsequently, there is a strong need for evolving concepts and frameworks rather than clinging to seemingly proven ones.

Excitingly, in my opinion, these opportunities exist: Through establishing a wildlife economy approach that keeps the well-being of both nature and people close at heart.  

Dr Julia Baum, Partnerships and Conservation Entrepreneurship Advisor

Image by Dr Julia Baum