Wildlife smuggling

For the legal trade of species, see Wildlife trade.
Confiscated wildlife products at JFK Airport

Wildlife smuggling or trafficking involves the illegal gathering, transportation, and distribution of animals and their derivatives. This can be done either internationally or domestically. Estimates of the money generated by wildlife smuggling vary, in part because of its illegal nature. Wildlife smuggling is estimated at $7.8bn to $10bn a year, but the illegal nature of such activities make determining the amount of money involved incredibly difficult. When considered with illegal timber and fisheries, wildlife trafficking is a major illegal trade along with narcotics, human trafficking, and counterfeit products.[1][2]

Products demanded by the trade include exotic pets, food, traditional medicine, clothing, and jewellery made from animals' tusks, fins, skins, shells, horns, and internal organs. Smuggled wildlife is an increasing global demand; it is estimated that the US, China, and the European Union are the places with the highest demand.


At the core of the illegal wildlife trafficking is a strong and rapidly expanding demand for a variety of products around the world: bushmeat; ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine; exotic pets; jewelry, trinkets, and accessories such as chess sets; furs for uses ranging from coats to traditional costumes; and trophies. With the exception of bushmeat, which is used as a primary source of protein by some cultures, all of these uses of illegally obtained wildlife are trophies, driven by a desire to be seen as more affluent, adventurous, or successful than others.

In many parts of Africa, the main demand for illegal wildlife comes from the consumption of bushmeat. Wild animals are a preferred as a source of protein and primates are considered a delicacy. It is believed that up to 40,000 monkeys are killed and eventually consumed each year in Africa alone via smuggling. Many primates are killed by bushmeat hunters, who supply to markets all over Africa, Europe, and the United States.

Much of demand for rhinoceros horns, tiger bones, and other animal products arises out of the practice of traditional Chinese medicine, which uses these ingredients to treat fevers, gout, and other illnesses;[3] maintain good health and longevity; and enhance sexual potency. Traditional Chinese medicines are taken by hundreds of millions of people. For example, some practitioners drink an expensive liquid made from tiger bones to improve their circulation, treat arthritis, and strengthen the body, in general.[4] The sale of tiger bones and products made from them is an example of the confusion that can exist on the topic. The sale of bones was outlawed in China in 1993; however, a pilot program, established in 2005, allows the use of bones for captive-bred tigers.[4] This can create a confusion in the minds of buyers as to whether the bones were legally obtained. Regardless, tiger wine cannot be sold legally in China, although advertisements for it ran on state television channel in 2011 and journalist attended an auction where tiger wine was offered for sale.[5] Many of the traditional Chinese medicines fail to cure anything, although the demand for them continues to expand greatly and to the detriment of wildlife.[6]

Exotic pets are animals desired by consumers and are rare or simply not easily available in the owner's region. Television shows and movies can make certain animals popular. While many of these animals can be obtained from legal sources, many animals are captured from their native environments, smuggled across national borders,[7] and wind up in family homes, menageries, or roadside circuses.[6] Reptiles, such as bearded dragons and geckos, and birds, such as scarlet macaws and certain falcons,[8] make up the largest share of animals captured and sold. Exotic mammals including three-toed sloths,[9] sugar gliders, prairie dogs, hedgehogs,[10] and other animals are kept as pets. Tigers are a popular pet. An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 tigers (2013) are kept in the United States. The range of numbers is due, in part, to the lack of required reporting in some areas. For comparison, less than 400 of these big cats are in U.S. zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums[11] and 3,200 live in the wild.[12] Tropical fish, nonhuman primates, and other animals are also part of the illicit pet trade.[6]



Members of terrorist organizations and criminal organizations illicitly traffic in hundreds of millions of plants and animals to fund buy weapons, finance civil conflicts, and launder money from illicit sources.[13][14][15][16] These often transnational efforts require a funding and a network of poachers, processors, smugglers, sellers, and buyers.[13] Well armed, highly organized poaching activities, such as the murderous 2012 attacks in Chad and the Republic of Congo, have captured headlines.[17] The appeal, in part, is the low risk of detection and punishment compared to drug trafficking.[18][19] In addition, trafficking can reap significant profits for those leading such efforts.[20] For example, a single Ploughshare tortoise from Magagascar (there are only 400 estimated left in the wild) can fetch US$24,000.[16]

Elephant ivory, a commonly trafficked contraband, can sell for little in the source country and can fetch high prices in destination countries. Prices depend greatly on the source country and the product.[21] Ivory prices and demand have skyrocketed, making it a growing, lucrative market. Globally, illegal ivory trade activity in 2014 is more than double what it was in 2007.[22] China is the largest importer of illegal ivory; the United States is second.[23][24][25]

Wildlife smuggling presents an economic cost to the countries where it occurs, including lost tourism and development opportunities.[26]


The spread of animal-borne disease affects both human health as well as threatening indigenous wildlife and natural ecosystems. According to the United States Government Accountability Office, nearly 75% of emerging diseases that reach humans come from animals. The link between wildlife trafficking and disease outbreak is questioned, although outbreaks of certain diseases have suspected links to smuggled animals.

Diseases believe to have originated and spread by wildlife smuggling

Diseases linked to animal species that are targets of wildlife smuggling


Wildlife smuggling directly affects the biodiversity of different ecosystems. Certain animals are in higher demand by smugglers, leading to a visible decline of these species in their native habitats. Wildlife smuggling may also cause the introduction of invasive and harmful species into an ecosystem, which can endanger indigenous wildlife.

International control measures

Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking

The Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT) was established in 2005 by the U.S. State Department as a voluntary coalition of governments and organizations that aims to end the illegal trade of wildlife and wildlife products. CAWT currently includes six governments and thirteen international NGOs. Their means of action include raising public awareness to curb demand, strengthening international cross-border law enforcements to limit supply, and endeavoring to mobilize political support from upper echelons.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wild Enforcement Network

The Freeland Foundation and TRAFFIC Southeast Asia worked with the Thai government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to establish the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) in 2005. ASEAN-WEN oversees cross-border cooperations and aims to strengthen the collective law enforcement capacity of the ten ASEAN member countries. It is the largest regional wildlife law enforcement collaboration in the world and receives support form the United States Agency for International Development.

South Asian Enforcement Network

The South Asian Enforcement Network (SAWEN) was created with the help of CAWT and TRAFFIC. In 2008, South Asian environment ministers agreed to create SAWEN under the support of the South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme. The SAWEN countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) directs its efforts at the supply side of wildlife smuggling. It aims to end wildlife smuggling and to ensure that international trade does not threaten endangered species.

By country


International trade of Australia's wildlife is regulated under Part 13A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The same act implements provisions of CITES and the UN Biodiversity Convention in relation to imports of threatened biodiversity and wildlife.


Latin America is vulnerable to wildlife smuggling because of its biodiversity. Ecuador is known for its biodiversity. In norther Ecuador, the Yasuní National Park and the surrounding Waorani Ethnic Reserve, which cover about 1,770 square miles, are home to around 4,000 species of plants; numerous animals, including the giant river otter; more than 400 fish species; and more than 500 species of birds.[31] As a comparison, the United States is home to 900 species of birds. Commonly smuggled birds include the scarlet macaw; this colorful bird, with bright red, brilliant blue, yellow, and white feathers, is in high demand as a pet.[32][33] Animals stolen in Latin America often end up in Europe, the United States, or Japan. Though there are laws against wildlife smuggling, the lack of resources causes conservation to be low in priority.

See also


  1. Haken, Jeremy. "Transnational Crime in the Developing World" (PDF). Global Financial Integrity. Global Financial Integrity. Retrieved 2014-08-30.
  2. Dalberg Global Development Advisors; World Wildlife Fund. "Fighting Illicit Wildlife Trafficking: A consultation with governments" (PDF). World Wildlife Fund. World Wildlife Fund. Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  3. "Poaching for Rhino Horn". Save the Rhino. Save the Rhino International. Retrieved September 4, 2014.
  4. 1 2 Hong, Brendon (July 22, 2014). "China Is Brewing Wine From Tiger Bones". IAC. The Daily Beast. Retrieved September 4, 2014.
  5. Watts, Jonathan. "'It's really good stuff': undercover at a Chinese tiger bone wine auction". The Guardian Environmental Blog. The Guardian. Retrieved September 2, 2014.
  6. 1 2 3 Felab-Brown, Vanda (June 2011). The Disappearing Act: The Illicit Trade in Wildlife in Asia (PDF). Brookings Institution. p. 43.
  7. Hajek, Daniel. "Lucrative Illegal Animal Trade Thrives In Southern California". NPR. National Public Radio. Retrieved 2014-09-13.
  8. South, Nigel; Brisman, Avi (2013). Routledge international handbook of green criminology. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. ISBN 9780415678827.
  9. Scriffen, John; Waterfield, Alex. "Hottest-Selling Animal in Colombia's Illegal Pet Trade: Sloths". ABC News. Retrieved September 13, 2014.
  10. "Facts about the Exotic Pet Trade". Animal Planet. Retrieved 2014-09-13.
  11. "Dangerous Exotic Pets: Big Cats". Humane Society of the United States. Dangerous Exotic Pets: Big Cats. Retrieved September 13, 2014.
  12. "More Tigers in American Backyards than in the Wild". World Wildlife Fund. World Wildlife Fund. Retrieved September 13, 2014.
  13. 1 2 Sellar, John (June 2007). "International Illicit Trafficking in Wildlife". Police Chief Magazine. 74 (6). Retrieved September 1, 2014.
  14. Zite Media B.V. "Gerben Jan Gerbrandy claiming that terrorist networks hunt wildlife for funding themselves" (PDF). Retrieved 7 October 2014.
  15. Neo, Hui Min. "Smuggling wildlife: From eggs in a bra to geckos in underwear". Physorg.org. Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  16. 1 2 "Malaysia's 'Lizard King' under probe for wildlife smuggling, report says". themalaymailonline.com. November 2, 2013. Retrieved September 1, 2014.
  17. Gettleman, Jeffrey (December 31, 2012). "Rangers in Isolated Central Africa Uncover Grim Cost of Protecting Wildlife". New York Times. Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  18. "The Escalating International Wildlife Trafficking Crisis: Ecological, Economic, and National Security Issues". Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  19. Trex, Ethan (January 27, 2010). "The Ins & Outs of Exotic Animal Smuggling". Mental Floss. Retrieved August 31, 2014.
  20. Sellar, John (June 2007). "International Illicit Trafficking in Wildlife". Police Chief Magazine. 74 (6). Retrieved August 31, 2014.
  21. Begley, Sharon (March 1, 2008). "Big Business: Wildlife Trafficking". Newsweek. Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  22. "Interior Announces Ban on Commercial Trade of Ivory as Part of Overall Effort to Combat Poaching, Wildlife Trafficking". Retrieved 2014-08-31.
  23. Board, The Editorial (2014-02-18). "Banning Ivory Sales in America". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-08-31.
  24. Christy, Bryan (2012-09-14). "Ivory Worship". Pictures, More From National Geographic Magazine. Retrieved 2014-08-31.
  25. Moore, Malcolm (2014-02-13). "Ivory trade: Can China get tough on tusks?". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-08-31.
  26. Friday (2014-03-07). "Wildlife Trade News - Poaching and illegal wildlife trade threaten tourism and development options in Africa". TRAFFIC. Retrieved 2014-08-31.
  27. Van Borm, S; Thomas, I; Hanquet, G; Lambrecht, B; Boschmans, M; Dupont, G; Decaestecker, M; Snacken, R; van den Berg, T (May 2005). "Highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus in smuggled Thai eagles, Belgium" (PDF). Emerging Infectious Diseases. 11 (5): 702–5. doi:10.3201/eid1105.050211. PMC 3320388Freely accessible. PMID 15890123. Retrieved October 3, 2014.
  28. Center for Disease Prevention and Control. "B Virus (herpes B, monkey B virus, herpesvirus simiae, and herpesvirus B)". Center for Disease Prevention and Control. Center for Disease Prevention and Control. Retrieved September 16, 2014.
  29. Rice, Thomas (April 28, 2009). "Mother and Daughter Sentenced to Jail for Smuggling Monkey from Thailand". Department of the Interior. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved September 14, 2014.
  30. "Salmonella". Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. Retrieved October 3, 2014.
  31. USAID; Wildlife Conservation Society. "The Global Conservation Program Achievements and Lessons Learned from 10 Years of Support for Threats-based Conservation at a Landscape and Seascape Scale: Greater Yasuní-Napo Moist Forest Landscape Conservati on Area (Ecuador)" (PDF). USAID. USAID and Wildlife Conservation Society. Retrieved August 31, 2014.
  32. Bergman, Charles (December 2009). "Wildlife Trafficking". Smithsonian. Retrieved August 31, 2014.
  33. "Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)". Rainforest Alliance. Retrieved August 31, 2014.


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