Building Global Expertise: Celebrating the Successes of the ‘CITES Master’s Program’

Building Global Expertise: Celebrating the Successes of the ‘CITES Master’s Program’
September 1, 2019 4:26 pm Blog

“The world needs a dedicated network of experienced, knowledgeable and educated people to share their diverse views and negotiation skills to bring about positive outcomes for the world and for conservation” remarked Pamela Scruggs of the US Fish and Wildlife Service during a CITES CoP 18 side-event celebrating the success of the CITES Master’s degree program hosted by International University of Andalucía (UNIA) in Spain.

This globally unique initiative was conceived over two decades ago by Margarita Clemente-Muñoz and her colleagues at the CITES Authority of Spain. These visionaries understood the importance and long-term value of building a cadre of global expertise that could contribute to global efforts to stop the international illegal trade in endangered wildlife species and parts, while engaging to advance the broader need for the sustainable conservation of all natural resources. In September 1996, Margarita passionately put forth her vision and the urgency of the need for increased global capacity for CITES implementation at the 37th Session of the Standing Committee of the CITES CoP. Thanks to her passion and commitment to covert the vision into reality, her efforts did not end behind the doors of the conference room. Rather, a few months later, Margarita submitted a proposal to the International University of Andalucía (UNIA) to establish and host a Master’s degree program that is formally called “Management and Conservation of Species in Trade: The International Framework”, but widely known as the ‘CITES Master’s Course. In this case, the rest is not history but the beginning of a remarkable investment in capacity through the additional training of wildlife law enforcement and conservation experts around the world. As a result of Margarita’s vision, passion and commitment, over 336 people from 97 countries have benefited from this course, including 26 from West Africa.

Two women sitting at a high table during an event.
Margarita taking the audience down memory lane at the “Building Global Expertise and Cooperation through the CITES Master’s Course” side event at the CITES CoP18.


Fast forward to August 2019 and 34 Standing Committee sessions later, Margarita is still actively engaged at the CITES CoP 18 and a co-organizer of a side event that took place on August 19th, 2019.The event recognized the impact the Master’s course has had in West Africa and in other regions and to celebrate the importance and value of the ‘CITES Master’s Course’. There was no better way to appreciate the impact of this program than for graduates and partners to share their personal testimonies and stories. Participants ranged from alumni of the very first cohort of students in 1998 to the most recent 2019 cohort who shared their memories, laughs and learning about their time at UNIA and in the days, weeks or years since their time there. Many of the alumni have moved on to become their national CITES Focal Points and several are playing his role in real time at the ongoing CITES CoP18, which itself speaks volumes about the success of the Course.

An initial cohort of students from West Africa enrolled in and later graduated from the 2016 course, followed by a second cohort in 2018, all of whom recently received their degrees. The results are strikingly evident. This year’s CITES CoP representatives from Cape Verde, Gabon, Guinea, Nigeria, Niger and Senegal were selected as national representatives to CITES due to the additional competencies and knowledge gained through participation in the CITES Master’s Course. The West African representatives share the passion that Margarita had when envisioning this course, and are at the center of discussions, debates and decisions of matters large and small, but all of which impact on the fight against the illegal trade in endangered species of flora and fauna. They took the lead in writing and submitting several proposals for deliberation at this current CoP. Beyond the global forum that is the CITES CoP, their training has impacted many of these professionals and their colleagues at different yet significant levels.

Four men in uniform working in the field.
Abba Sonko went through the Master’s course in 2016 and is one of many examples of how the training led lead to big changes in West Africa’s CITES capacity.


Since completing his degree in 2017, Abba Sonko from Senegal provided training to schools, enforcement agencies and parliament officials on CITES regulations and implementation at the national level. At the ECOWAS regional level, he is working with fellow graduates from Nigeria, Niger, Gambia, Guinea and other countries to develop a West Africa Strategy on Combating Wildlife Crime, and co-chairing a team of experts finalizing the Strategy. His co-chairman John Timothy Daniels is from Nigeria and a freshly minted 2019 graduate of the Course. Beyond West Africa, Abba has been enlisted on a panel for designing an African strategy for fighting the illegal trade in wild species.

Two men sitting at the high table.
John Timothy Daniels and Abba Sonko are co-chairs of the committee tasked to develop a West African strategy to combat wildlife crime.


This is just one of many success stories borne from the CITES Master’s Program. Others include a professor of law, a voice for Asian wildlife, researchers and national scientific authorities all demonstrating the wonderful and powerful outcomes of this training. Perhaps as, if not more important, than the professional and career successes as a result of graduating from the UNIA Program, are those on a personal level – the lifelong friendships and networks that were seeded in Andalucía and continue to grow and flourish. Anyone who works in wildlife conservation will tell you that effective wildlife law enforcement is a function of strong networking and coordination across borders. It goes to show that small investments can yield big, long term impacts for wildlife, for countries, for people and for the globe as a whole.

You can watch the video of the side event on “Building Global Expertise and Cooperation through the CITES Master’s Course” here.


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