Illicit Wildlife Trafficking: A Multi-Billion Dollar Criminal Industry

Illegal wildlife trade is a big business. Countless species are overexploited by dangerous networks for reasons as askew as running a multi-billion dollar and more.

All over the world, there are efforts put in place to help conserve and preserve the wildlife species that today stand at the risk of extinction. However, the illicit wildlife trade undermines all these efforts eventually leading to the destabilizing of bio-diversity. Many contributing factors such as an increase in demand for wildlife products, leaky borders, and a rewarding business model further fuel the illegal trade of plants and animals. 

What is Wildlife Trafficking? 

Wildlife trafficking is the movement, sale, and exchange of wildlife from their natural habitat to an unnatural one. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) aims to ensure that any trade of animal or plant species does not threaten its survival, an agreement that most governments voluntarily adhere to. Though trade of wildlife species that are not endangered is allowed, appropriate permits must be in place. CITES lists the species in three appendices:

  • Appendix I include species that are threatened with extinction and trade of these species is allowed in a controlled manner and only in cases of exceptional circumstances. 
  • Appendix II includes species that may not be threatened with extinction, and trade of these species is allowed.
  • Appendix III includes species that are listed as ‘protected’ in at least one country, and trade of these species is allowed.

The Illegality of It

Today, animal trafficking is one of the largest crime industries around the globe; activities include poaching, capture, smuggling, and trade of protected animal/bird/marine species. Under CITES and the respective national legislations, the trade of endangered species is considered illegal. The movement and trade of species listed under Appendix I, either through the means of violence, deception, exploitation, or coercion, is illegal. CITES has listed over 38,700 species — roughly divided into 5,950 animal species and 32,800 plant species: of which trade of 1,118 species is considered illegal. These include mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates, and flora.

The Financial Value of It 

The financial value of illegal animal trade stands between a whopping $7 and $23 billion per year! After narcotics, humans, and arms, illegal animal trafficking is the fourth most profitable crime industry. Unreported fish trade, illegal timber trade, and illicit wildlife trafficking are estimated at more than US$20 billion per year. It is said that between 2016 and 2018, more than US$400 million in ivory trading and US$230 million in rhino horn trading was illicitly generated. The estimated numbers of illicit financial flows do not include operational costs, concealment costs, evasion costs, and corruption costs. While there is little to no systematic assessment of how much money flows in this trade, countering the money flow has been considered as one goal by the United Nations. 

The Demand for It

The demand for wildlife products comes from cultural and medicinal consumer groups. Animals are used for their perceived medicinal value and also as a symbol of status in many countries. Today, wildlife products are in demand and are used for and as - status symbols, firearm decorations, luxury products, delicacies, gift-giving, pets, collections, and investments. Opportunistic buying of rare plants and animals and trophy hunting has also led to an increase in demand. 

The Supply of It 

The supply chain of illegal wildlife trafficking involves many people at different stages of the trade. As you go high up the commodity chain, the profit margins go as high as 50 times! And so, there is enough motivation to keep this trade going on. 

Flow of Products 

In animal trade, both legal and illegal, there is a chain that is followed — from the capture of wildlife to the consumer. Regional intermediate collation and distribution networks usually form this chain. Organised crime groups use indirect routes to avoid suspension and detection. The trade flows as follows:

  • Source Country - The wildlife product is procured by either an individual local poacher, a professional hunter, or a criminal group. Through the domestic market or a middleman, the product is then sent forward. 
  • Transit Country/Countries - One or more regional middlemen, low-level brokers, or international traders handle the incoming product and forward it to the consumer country. The product may pass through one or more countries. The product may also be processed at this stage. 
  • Consumer Country - At the destination country, a local middleman or the domestic market will deliver the product to the consumer as either live product, or in the form of food, medicine, pet, or consumer goods. 

Most Heavily Trafficked Wildlife Species

A research conducted by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution on Tackling Illicit Trafficking in Wildlife in 2020 concluded that the following are the most trafficked wildlife species:

  • Timber Rosewood

Internationally, timber is sold and used in bulk for furniture making. Today, rosewood (richly hued timber) is the most widely traded illegal wildlife product. This endangered hardwood is, primarily, used in making of the traditional Chinese furniture. Its illegal trade is usually obscured, and hence is not often acknowledged in the category of illegal wildlife trade. It so happens that sometimes illegally exported rosewood from one country can be legally imported into another. The largest flow of timber rosewood is known to come from Africa. In 2017, Nigeria alone exported 750,000 cubic meters of timber, which is roughly 4 million trees. 

  • African Elephant Tusks 

Many African nations, home to elephants, have seen poachers illegally kill elephants so they can remove their tusks. Tens of thousands of elephants get killed each year, and their ivories are taken away. The ivory trade saw a steady rise till 2014, but since 2016, the illicit ivory market went into a sharp decline. China and Vietnam remain the biggest ivory markets where tusks are considered a symbol of luck. 

  • Rhinoceros' Horns

Rhino horn poaching is the number one reason for the decline of the rhino populations all around the world. The primary sources of illicit rhino horn shipments are Mombasa and Kenya. And the biggest market of rhino horns remains Vietnam, while other Asian countries also see illegal imports. A study found that a raw rhino horn was worth a massive US$100,000 per kilogram in 2014. The good news is, rhino poaching has seen a steady decline post-2015. And field monitoring suggests that in 2019, the price of a raw horn fell to US$19,000 per kilogram.

  • Pangolin Scales

Until 2018, the seizures of pangolin scales have seen an increase of over ten times! The pangolin, even today, remains the most trafficked mammal species. Pangolins are native to Southeastern Asia; but are also found in Africa, particularly Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Asian species, known for its meat, are illicitly flown towards Africa. In China and Vietnam, pangolin scales are used for making medicines that are believed to cure literally every disease. Trafficked by the millions, pangolins today are very close to extinction. 

  • Live Reptiles

The WWF states that the legal and illegal reptile trade industry is worth US$160 billion per year. The last two decades have seen an explosion in the illegal exotic reptile trade. Pet trade handlers treat reptiles in the most inhuman way possible because these animals are easily replaceable because of captive breeding. These species are mainly traded for fashion, food, and medicine. Source countries for these reptile trade belong to South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and West Africa; while the destination countries belong to East and Southeast Asia, the United States, and Europe. 

  • Big Cats

Tigers are trafficked for all its parts, from fur to bones to blood and even claws. Tragically, this has led to an all-time low of around 3,500 tigers in the wild. The source countries for illegal tiger trade remain Thailand, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, while the destination for most tiger products is the medicinal industries of China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Apart from tigers, clouded leopards, snow leopards, lions, and jaguars are also illegally traded.  

  • European Glass Eels

Eel meat is a multi-billion dollar industry. Fishing of European Eels, also called glass eels, was permitted in some European countries at certain times of the year. But after IUCN listed these fishes as critically endangered, the commercial trade to and from Europe was stopped in 2010. Today, Asian markets are quite lucrative for eel meat. And so, it is estimated that over 6,000 kilograms of eels are illegally traded for human consumption. 

What Can We Do?

There are several ways that you can contribute towards tackling the illegal wildlife trade:

  • At the community level, start by spreading a word about it. 
  • Be better informed about the ingredients in the commercial products that you use in daily life. Making choices that do not threaten species can go a long way.  
  • Record and report any crime that you witness.

Poachers, hunters, and trade networks take extraordinary risks to take the wildlife from its natural habitat and put it into human servitude. And the number one driving force behind the illegal animal trafficking business is - Money

Arjun Sharma

Arjun Sharma

Jeevoka member since Dec 2020