What is the Illegal Wildlife Trade?

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

It runs deeper than you think, and no country in the world is immune. It is the soft underbelly of criminal activity. Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) joined other illicit trades such as drug, weapon and human trafficking. As I've been doing my research, I have realised that no animal species is safe from the trade. I'm sure most of us are aware or heard of the lucrative rhino horn and elephant ivory trade; however, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Bats, parrots, eels, eagles, snakes, lizards, monkeys, tortoises, spiders and pangolins, have the potential to be sold on the black market. The latter species on this list being the most trafficked animal in the world to date. All these animals have different uses for their consumers such as meat/food (an example is shark fin soup), pangolin meat is also seen as a delicacy, pets, ornaments and wait for it witchcraft.

An assortment of animal products confiscated from authorities.


To understand this trade and the heartless killing of these animals for economic gain, we need to go to the source. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is around 23 centuries old, Chinese tradition and culture believe that humans and earth are connected. When we get sick that connection is out of balance, this is where Ying and Yang come into play. Treatments incorporate, among other things acupuncture, acupressure, herbal brews and ground-up animal parts, such as rhino horn. An interesting fact I discovered was at its infancy (TCM) did not use any animal or their body parts but only consisted of only herbs and plants. However, as time moved on with better trade routes opening, they decided to experiment with other living organisms. Animal parts like rhino horn were believed to heal fever and cardiovascular disease; pangolin scales were said to promote blood circulation and improve lactation in pregnant women. The meat of the pangolin is typically used as a tonic or eaten as food. These are just two species and their believed cures, but there are many other animals with pseudo treatments. Modern westernised scientific health studies have proved that these ancient remedies do not affect the human body whatsoever.

Chinese medicine dispenser weighing products.


In many Asian countries like China, Japan, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates it is considered that if you own a tiger rug, an elephant's tusk, a rhino's horn or even a live cheetah with a leash on it, you are considered a person of status, respect and wealth. However, you can order a multitude of items on the dark web, not only animals and plants and have them delivered to your living room (side note: I wouldn't suggest doing that). Anyone can do that, without getting their hands dirty. However, I can't entirely agree that 'status' should warrant the killing or the purchase of innocent life. Having said all this, the trade still exists and not only does it exist, but it also thrives. It costs the world between £10bn – £20bn a year.

If you have rhino horn, elephant ivory or tiger rugs, you are seen to be wealthy in some countries.

The crime itself

Depending on the animal being poached, it takes different techniques and weaponry to kill them. For big game, bolt action rifles are reliable and straightforward. They can be altered to potent cartridges and are easy to add a telescopic sight. For pangolins all, you need to do is find them and pick them up because their defensive mechanism is to roll up into a ball. Most poachers come from informal settlements which neighbour a national reserve. They live on or below the breadline, and they are desperate for jobs and ultimately money to put food on the table. These are the "foot soldiers" of the crime syndicate and are at level one in the pyramid. They are hired by the dealers who exploit this desperateness.

Level two consists of the gangmasters who supply the poachers with guns, money and other necessities. Once the animal has been shot and their commodities as the horn or tusks are hacked off, they are given to the dealers who export the items to Asian countries, they fall into level three of the pyramid. Level four are the importers and sellers of the poached goods. They sell the products behind closed doors. The last and smallest portion of the trade is the actual consumers of the product, and they come in at level five in the pyramid. An amount of the money that the consumers spent on the goods goes back into more funding of further poaching.

Although this seems quite a time consuming for the criminals concerned, they have another trick up their sleeve. This involves farming.

There are difference levels in and of organised crime.

Legal farming

In efforts to try and help save endangered species, some organisations or individual business people set up farms or nature reserves in the name of conservation to boost stocks of wild populations in the wild. This can be seen specifically with rhinos. The rhinos are held in large areas where the horn is sawn off correctly and without hurting the rhino, and thus the horn will grow back. These sawn-off horns are then sent to Asia to help lessen the killing of wild rhino. It seems like a great idea in theory; however, on the ground, the criminal syndicates use these facilities to lauder their poached horns into the Asian market, so it looks as if the horns are coming into the country legally.

Another example is lion trophy hunting, where the hunter usually only takes the head of the animal back home with him. The bones of animals are generally sent to Asian countries as they use those as well. Nevertheless, illegally killed lions' bones are laundered the same way as the rhino horns are. I haven't even scratched the surface with this topic and will most certainly go into more depth in upcoming blog posts.

Lion farming

The Law

I don't want to bore you with legalities from around the world because if I had to do that, you'd still be reading this in the year 2025, so here's the long and short of it. After conservationists and governments found that this wildlife crime was a serious problem, a convention called CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) was drawn up in 1975. It is an international contract between governments. Its goal is to ensure that international trade in varieties of wild animals and plants does not threaten their existence.

Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial.

Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction, but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. It also includes so-called "look-alike species", i.e. species whose specimens in trade look like those of species listed for conservation reasons.

Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species, and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. International trade in specimens of species listed in this Appendix is allowed only on presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates.

These rules do not, however, persuade criminals from doing it illegally. The trade thrives on money laundering, falsifying goods and most of all, corruption.

What is being done

In recent years countries like the United Kingdom have put into place, a complete trade ban on ivory products. On a smaller scale business like Google and eBay have banned ivory and other (IWT) on their online platforms. They have put into place-unique algorithms which pick up keywords and adverts which look dodgy and delete them automatically. Actors and actresses from America and Asia are also speaking up to bring awareness. Developed countries like the UK and Germany are contributing millions of their money to African countries to fight the threat of poaching. However, doing this is like putting a plaster on a severed artery!! More enforcement needs to be done at the higher levels of the pyramid, such as with the dealers like heavier sentences when caught. More awareness of consumers is essential, as well.

Tougher sentencing for wildlife crime need to be imposed on offenders.

What can YOU do?

1 Don't support the illegal trade by buying its goods… obviously

2 When on holiday aboard, and you see something that doesn't look right, (for instance a tiger and lion cub tied up to a pole in a market place) report it to the local authorities.

3 Buy certified products.

4 Eat sustainably, yes, the (IWT) happens in the ocean and with plants/trees as well.

5 When buying a foreign pet, make sure it has all the proper certified documents.

In Asia, there are large markets which sell legal and illegal products, including wildlife like bats, civets' snakes and birds. There have been many reports and speculation about the virus originating in these markets around Asia. In my next blog post, I will be diving head-on into the COVID-19 pandemic to find if there is any evidence linking it to the illegal wildlife trade.

Bye for now.

Sites referenced

52 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All