Transporting samples, species protection and international regulations: operating instructions

© Sarah Fretwell / Tara Expeditions Foundation

CITES means “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora”. It defines regulations and gives permits for collecting and exporting samples – a quasi-permanent headache for the Tara Pacific logistics staff. The Convention was signed in 1973 in Washington, on the initiative of 39 nations. Today there are about 100 signatories worldwide, with different levels of commitment.


In front of her computer screen, between exchanges via Skype or e-mails with Tara’s team and agents on the other side of the planet, Clémentine Moulin, logistics coordinator at the Tara Expeditions Foundation in Paris, answers our questions regarding the CITES permits she spends her days applying for.
Without these documents, customs authorities in each country Tara visits can block the transfer of parcels containing coral samples – the expedition’s treasure. Some corals collected during Tara Pacific are species protected by 1 of the 3 appendices to the Convention.

As a result, since the beginning of Tara’s journey in the Pacific Ocean, it has been impossible to export samples collected in any country as long as a CITES export permit isn’t signed by that country. Once samples arrive in France, for instance, a CITES import permit must be obtained to allow their delivery to the partner laboratories, such as the Genoscope in Évry. “You’re now beginning to get a better idea of the complexity of this mission. And all this must be done in real time, as the expedition progresses.”


Becky Vegathurber, microbiologiste à l’Université de l’Oregon, prépare les tubes qui accueilleront les échantillons de coraux.

Becky Vegathurber, microbiologist at the University of Oregon, prepares the tubes that will hold  coral samples © Yann Chavance / Tara Expedition Foundation


Before issuing a CITES import permit in France, for example, what do the competent authorities check?

«Let’s consider the latest example. In Noumea, where we disembarked all the coral samples collected over the past 3 months. I had to apply for a CITES import permit in New Caledonia to unload our samples on the dock, and a CITES export permit, also in New Caledonia, to load them into the plane to France.
Then, when these samples arrived in Paris, I had to obtain a CITES import permit in France. The National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) in Paris delivers an opinion on the issuance of CITES permits. The competent staff studies and checks why these samples were collected, under which conditions, from which sites and in what quantities, according to each species status in the country of origin.
Everything was OK, so the CITES import permit was issued by the competent public authority, the Regional and Interdepartmental Directorate for Environment and Energy (DRIEE) in France. It is attached to the Water and Biodiversity Department, itself under the leadership of the Ministry of Ecology.
But each visited country has its own specificities. It would be too simple otherwise (laughs)!».

Are CITES permits mandatory in all Pacific countries crossed during the expedition?

«Yes, for the most part. Some countries have signed the Convention, others have acceded or ratified it. This means that there are different reading levels to the agreement and therefore implementation procedures for coral.
By the time Tara returns to her home port in Lorient in October 2018, I’ll have a few more CITES permits to obtain, as we still have 13 countries to visit. The next one is from Papua where we are currently.»



les visites se multiplient autour de Tara_VH

Tara anchored in Papoua  therefore the crew can go take samples © Vincent Hilaire / Tara Expeditions Foundation


Why is it necessary to obtain a CITES permit every time then, if Tara doesn’t organize shipping* from each country?

«CITES is not just a customs tool, it is above all dedicated to protecting endangered species to prevent their disappearance and extinction because of trade. Some coral species are listed in Appendix II to the Washington Convention. Without the CITES, black coral and red coral from the Mediterranean Sea might have disappeared, transformed into jewelry or ornamental pieces.
Clearly the CITES convention is in harmony with the values and ethics of Tara’s scientific expeditions.
For instance, pandas and rhinos are listed in Appendix I of the Convention, the most restrictive. Unfortunately, this doesn’t prevent these species from being threatened with extinction.»

Interview by Vincent Hilaire

* Sample unloading, packaging and shipment to partner laboratories

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