What’s Being Done About the Illegal Wildlife Trade?

Wildlife crimes are contributing to biodiversity loss and extinction on a massive scale, leaving policymakers and conservationists on the front lines of defense.

A keeper holding a pangolin, one of the world’s most trafficked mammals, inside its enclosure at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. Photo Courtesy: MANAN VATSYAYANA/Getty Images

When most people think of the illegal wildlife trade, they might picture elephants poached for their ivory or baby tigers stolen from the wild and sold to roadside zoos. However, this globally widespread and intensely destructive industry touches countless other plant and animal species each year — from pangolins and parrots to fungi and fish. By some estimates, one in every five vertebrate species is affected by some sort of trade.

Not all wildlife trade is illegal, either. Tens of thousands of species are routinely taken from the wild and sold lawfully as food, pets, houseplants, leather, souvenirs and medicine, sometimes without sustainable regulations or responsible enforcement. Although the illegal and unsustainable global wildlife trade continues to negatively impact species, natural ecosystems, human health and economies, a lot is being done to fight back.

How Does Wildlife Trade Affect Biodiversity?

Rhino horn is worth more than the price of gold in parts of Asia and Africa. Photo Courtesy: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Because the scale of wildlife crime is so immense (and undocumented), it’s difficult to measure the full extent of its damage. The trade of wild plants, marine life, invertebrates and fungi is often overlooked in favor of terrestrial vertebrate species like elephants, rhinos and tigers. Most scientists agree that the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade represents one of the five major drivers of biodiversity loss and widespread extinction on the global scale.

Extensive species loss can disrupt other dependent species (even untargeted ones) and their unique ecosystem structure, changing the balance of seed dispersal, pollination and carbon storage that helps keep everything in check within the environment. Taking too many of a single species out of their environments can leave others more susceptible to diseases, invasive species, predators and pests.

These threats aren’t limited to plants and animals. The illegal wildlife trade also supplies live animal markets that can facilitate zoonotic diseases (infectious diseases transmitted between species from animals to humans and vice versa). Just under two-thirds of the emerging infectious diseases that affect humans have zoonotic origins. Of those, about 70% originate in wildlife. Many, such as Ebola and coronavirus, lead to full-on pandemics.

Illegal and unsustainable trade in timber can also lead to deforestation. Losing forest landscapes can create habitat loss for other wildlife and reduce recreation or ecotourism space for humans. And, since criminal networks are typically involved in wildlife trafficking, it can impact the local or global economy and sustain corruption or environmental injustice in countries vulnerable to conflict.

What Drives the Illegal Wildlife Trade?

Elephant ivory is burned during a ceremony to destroy confiscated wildlife parts in Naypyidaw, Myanmar in 2018. Photo Courtesy: YE AUNG THU/Getty Images
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The illegal wildlife trade is fueled by demand. The rarer an animal, the higher the price — and those living in extreme poverty are often left with little economic opportunity outside of poaching. In many places where wildlife crimes are more rampant, corruption and weak laws allow criminal networks to avoid harsh consequences.

All along the illegal wildlife trade chain of command, complex networks of individuals organize and finance the industry. Nonetheless, studies of prisoners convicted of wildlife offenses show that individuals from marginalized communities with few alternative sources of income are disproportionately punished compared to the range of people involved. The local poachers are usually imprisoned, leaving their families and communities trapped in the poverty cycle.

In some parts of Asia, wildlife parts have cultural roots. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, rhino horn is believed to dispel heat, detoxify and cool the blood, and treat fever — and it has the market value to show for it. According to some analyses, rhino horn can fetch an average of USD 17,852 per kilogram in Asia, while in Africa, it’s worth about USD 8,683. Other studies show that each kilogram is worth between USD 30,000 and 60,000 on the black market (more than gold).

What Can Be Done?

Rangers at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Northern Kenya have added tracker dogs to their anti-poaching units. Photo Courtesy: Matt Moyer/Getty Images
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One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals calls on countries to halt biodiversity loss. Part of this includes taking “urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products.”

Wildlife is also protected internationally by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES provides a universal framework to protect vulnerable species against exploitation through international trade and help close any gaps on the local level, especially those with poorly targeted or misdirected wildlife law enforcement.

Engaging with communities and considering education access when developing conservation strategies is essential. Promoting law enforcement or a wildlife trade monitoring organization can only go so far if consumer behavior continues to increase the value of wildlife parts.

In Vietnam, a national curriculum initiative coordinated by Humane Society International and the Vietnam Management Authority for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species teaches children aged 6 to 11 about species conservation and threats. Most of the estimated 4 million children in the program are receiving lessons about threatened wildlife like rhinos, elephants, pangolins and tigers for the first time ever. The hope is to instill the next generation of local citizens with an appreciation for wildlife and cultivate an organic decline in the consumption of illegal wildlife products.

Photo Courtesy: Chau Doan/Getty Images

TRAFFIC International is a non-governmental organization that works to monitor the global wildlife trade and combat wildlife crime. Among working on anti-poaching efforts and developing consumer interventions, they also research behavioral science social marketing to reduce demand for threatened species, advocate for political change  and innovate technologies to support enforcement agencies on the ground.

In addition to strengthening wildlife enforcement, supporting strategies to end poverty can benefit communities engaged in the wildlife trade around the world. One option is to provide ways to use local wildlife in a more sustainable way, such as ecotourism or even provide jobs as anti-poaching community rangers. 

How You Can Help

For many of us, the types of wildlife threatened by poaching and illegal trade might seem too distant for our help, but that is simply not true. Speak up on behalf of those who are on the frontlines and threatened by armed poachers, or donate to organizations like TRAFFIC, the Environmental Investigation Agency and Conservation International that prioritize wildlife crime.

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Consumers can raise awareness about the illegal wildlife trade and change habits to include more sustainable products, such as those certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Also petition your local and federal government to enforce stricter regulations on the trade of wildlife products and promote initiatives that shift consumer behavior away from wildlife products.

When traveling, avoid supporting tourist attractions that offer close interactions with wildlife, such as elephant rides or tiger cub petting, as these animals or their parents were likely taken from the wild illegally. Report wildlife crimes to your local authorities and never purchase illegal wildlife or its products as souvenirs while traveling, in markets, online or anywhere else. Consider encouraging others to do the same and ask questions before they buy.

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