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Origins and Evolution of the World’s Largest Annual Celebration of Wildlife

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By John Scanlon

· 7 min read

On 3 March 2023, we celebrated the tenth anniversary of UN World Wildlife Day. We also celebrated the collective passion for wildlife that overcame a lack of resources to create the world’s largest global annual celebration of wildlife back in 2014. It was my great pleasure to serve as Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as this all took shape.

How it all started: a series of coincidences

Quite by chance, the 16th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP16) would fall in the same year as the 40th anniversary of the Convention, which was signed at a Plenipotentiary Conference held in Washington, D.C., US, on 3 March 1973.
In preparing for CoP16 and CITES 40th anniversary, I read all of the background materials on the Washington Conference. It was co-hosted by the US Department of State, with the Department of the Interior, and the Host Government branded the 1973 event as ‘the World Wildlife Conference,’ which had a great ring to it.
As I was researching all of this background, my colleague, Juan Carlos Vasquez wandered into my office. We chatted about the history of the 1973 Conference. I said we should call CITES CoP16 ‘the World Wildlife Conference,’ just as they did back in 1973. After some reluctance, Juan Carlos agreed and suggested that perhaps 3 March could be declared World Wildlife Day, noting he had been unable to garner any support within the Secretariat or amongst parties for the idea.
“That’s brilliant,” was my reply. The timing was perfect, and perhaps CoP16 could even start on 3 March. I said I would raise all of these ideas with the host Government, Thailand, and see if it might consider sponsoring a resolution in this 40th anniversary year.

Meeting the CoP16 Host Government

Over the following months, I briefed the Thai Ministers responsible for the CoP in Bangkok. Following these briefings, the Government of Thailand decided that CoP16 should start on 3 March 2013 and be called the World Wildlife Conference, and requested that we assist Thailand in preparing a CoP document and draft resolution to declare 3 March World Wildlife Day.
Working with our Chief of Governing Bodies, Jonathan Barzdo, and senior officials in Thailand, we then set about preparing a draft resolution and supporting document for Thailand’s consideration. The final document and draft resolution that was formally submitted to CoP16 by Thailand arrived on the last day for submitting documents. It was a close call!

CoP16 in Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand was an extraordinarily generous host of CoP16. Its proposal to declare 3 March World Wildlife Day was adopted unanimously by acclamation. Adopting the resolution was a CITES declaration – but the resolution also called for taking steps to make it an official UN day, which required a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution. We quickly got to work with Thailand to make this happen, and I travelled to New York to meet with various UN and Thai government officials.
The UNGA resolution needed to identify an entity that could facilitate the implementation of the Day. An Ambassador from a UN Member State very active in New York on wildlife issues called me and asked if the CITES Secretariat was prepared to play this role, with the caveat: “no additional resources!” I did not hesitate in replying “yes,” as it was a day that was close to our hearts, but I was not sure it would end up that way.
On 20 December 2013, at its 68th session, the UNGA unanimously proclaimed 3 March – the day of signature of CITES in 1973 – as UN World Wildlife Day, to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants. The CITES Secretariat was to “facilitate” the Day, but with no new resources.
My emphasis as CITES Secretary-General was that while 3 March was the date on which CITES was signed, UN World Wildlife Day was not about CITES as it went well beyond trade-related issues and addressed all wild animals and plants, not just those listed under the Convention.
We celebrated the first-ever observance in the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on 3 March 2014 with an all-star cast, including the then-UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, President of the Swiss Confederation, Didier Burkhalter, and Ambassador of Thailand, Thani Thongphakdi.

Let’s go wild for wildlife!

The theme for the first observance of UN World Wildlife Day in 2014 was ‘Let’s Go Wild for Wildlife.’ It was fantastic to hear the UN Secretary-General conclude his remarks on the Day with these five words! His personal involvement in UN World Wildlife Day gave it massive momentum.
In quick time, we released a UN World Wildlife Day logo – based on the logo for the 40th Anniversary of CITES, which remains the World Wildlife Day logo today. We also released a dedicated website that, until January 2023, contained a historical archive of past celebrations of UN World Wildlife Day, and a dedicated Twitter account, none of which was branded as CITES, to reflect the all-embracing nature of the Day. We also launched the stunning ‘Wild and Precious’ photo exhibition.


As requested by the UNGA and CITES resolutions in 2014, and every year thereafter, we engaged multiple partners, including UN Headquarters, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and UN Stamps, as well as large and small non-governmental organizations (NGOs). We launched film festivals and poster competitions and more, with no additional resources, all of which continue to this day. The Secretariat’s Liu Yuan, as well as Juan Carlos Vasquez, did a great job over this period of time.
The theme for UN World Wildlife Day in 2017 was ‘Listen to the young voices,’ following the adoption of the first CITES resolution on CITES and youth engagement at CoP17 in Johannesburg, South Africa, which was championed by the late Dr. Edna Molewa and co-sponsored by South Africa and the US.
The extraordinary success of UN World Wildlife Day exceeded all of our expectations.

Looking ahead to the next 50 years

From humble, and almost accidental, beginnings, UN World Wildlife Day has, in rapid time, grown to become the preeminent global annual celebration of wildlife, a day on which the world can come together to celebrate and raise awareness of the millions of wild animals and plants we share this beautiful planet with, and how important they are to our own well-being. That will continue.
What may change is the entity that facilitates the Day, given how UN World Wildlife Day has evolved since its inception, extending well beyond CITES mandate amid growing calls by States for better synergies in the UN system. UNEP is the leading global authority on the environment within the UN system and it serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment. It is the obvious choice to facilitate UN World Wildlife Day and enable it to reach its full potential.
Happy 10th UN World Wildlife Day – and Happy 50th birthday, CITES!
This article was first published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development SDG Knowledge Hub as one in a series of seven articles commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The complete series of articles are available in English and Chinese here.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
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About the author

John Scanlon AO is a seasoned leader in the fields of environment, governance and sustainable development, with a unique range of experience gained across multiple continents, disciplines and organisations. He has served in senior positions in the private sector, with government, international organisations, the United Nations, and not-for-profit organizations, and as chair or member of many boards and initiatives. This includes working with IUCN (Bonn), UNEP (Nairobi) and CITES (Geneva)

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