Stolen and Smuggled: Behind Illegal Wildlife Trade

The Illegal Wildlife Trade refers to animal or animal products taken from their environment and traded within or across national borders in a manner that violates the law. The revenue procured from this trade falls, by experts’ best estimates, between ten and twenty billion dollars each year, following only the drug and arms trade and possibly the human trafficking trade in terms of illegal business revenue. The Illegal Wildlife Trade degrades the environment and threatens the survival of endangered species. 

Let’s imagine you’re strolling through town with your mother on a Sunday morning when you stumble upon an outdoor market. After skimming your fingers over rows of colorful earrings and wooden chimes, you spot a pair of large tortoiseshell earrings. Your Aunt Daphne would love these for her upcoming birthday! At the same time, your mother finds a tiger skin rug, which, according to her, would look lovely next to the fireplace (you disagree).

These exotic treasures are being sold in the broad daylight near a bustling Starbucks. The shopkeeper said you could pay with credit. There’s nothing sketchy about this location and transaction. Should you buy them? Let’s take a look how this eclectic vendor acquired these earrings and rug in the first place.

In what scenario could you happily purchase these items, receive a kiss from your aunt, and cringe every time you step into the living room? Let’s follow one potential path.

The turtle and tiger from which these products came are classified Appendix II species in the CITES agreement. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Flora, protects over 35,000 species (roughly 5,000 animals).

Over 80 countries agreed to CITES in 1973 marking a watershed event in conservation. Each country agreed to adhere to certain regulatory standards, including ceasing to kill and transport species listed under CITES’ three appendixes. Species in Appendix I face extinction and cannot be traded at all. Species in Appendix II require controlled trade in order to curve population decline, and species in Appendix III are declining in at least one country and require monitored importation between countries. The turtle and tiger that you find at the outdoor market were the Olive Ridley turtle and the Genius tiger. (This tiger is fictional for the purpose of this article. In reality, all tigers are currently banned from trade. Incidentally, all six other turtle species are endangered or critically endangered.)

In this scenario, Country A is the export country and Country B is import country. Both of these countries employ an active Management and Scientific Authority, a CITES created authority assigned specific roles in regulating the trade. The Scientific Authority from Country A (the export country) examines the earrings and rug and concludes that

  1. Hunting and selling these animals won’t harm the conservation of their species.
  2. Country B (the import country) can adequately care for the imported animals.
  3. The importation won’t pose any threat to Country B’s native flora and fauna, so importation restrictions will be unnecessary.

After this, Country A’s Management Authority confirms that

  1. The Scientific Authority approved of the products’ export to the import country.
  2. If alive, the species can be transported safely.
  3. The import country granted an import permit.
  4. The species were obtained in a manner that adhered to the countries’ laws.
  5. If the species were endangered, they would be used for non-commercial purposes, such as education.

Next, Customs and Border Patrol Officers review the permits to approve transport across international borders. The animals’ export and import are recorded. The products arrive in your current country and they make their way to the market and your hands.

Hurray! Great for your aunt, not so much for your living room. Many sanctioned animal products, whether decorations, food, medicine, clothes, instruments, or pets, follow a similar journey across borders. When we buy such products, we can feel confident that the capture and killing of these animals did not threaten the survival of a species or cause unduly harm the ecosystem, environment, and local area.

When does wildlife trade become illegal? In what situation should you drop those earrings, back away from that rug, and call the World Wildlife Fund? 

Actually, in the case of tortoiseshell earrings and tiger products, you should take this action most, if not all of the time. Tortoiseshell products often come from Hawksbill sea turtles, a critically endangered species protected under CITES. The most numerous tiger species left in the wild, the Bengal tiger, has only around 2,500 individuals left. So, how are these products smuggled out of their native countries?

While CITES sets global guidelines, it’s each individual country’s responsibility to enforce them. Some countries lack necessary resources or have unstable governments. Others have more pressing concerns that take greater priority and therefore indirectly allow poachers to continue sneaking protected wildlife past their borders. Even in countries with competent authorities and border patrol, illegal wildlife networks smuggle products or bribe their way through the system.

Illegal wildlife hunters often have large networks that work together to bribe law enforcement, forge documents, or smuggle goods. The following are some of the most common methods used to get around the system:

Forgery: One common method used is to forge a permit or breeding document and present it to an untrained and possibly uncaring customs officer. Country B (import country) then receives the animals and may accept the paperwork as legitimate.

Bribery: Another method is simply bribing the border patrol officer with a large sum of money, while another of his or her accomplices bride law enforcement on the other end.

Smuggling: A third technique is securing a permit for legal animals, and then burying a few illegal animals, such as Hawksbill turtles, underneath the legitimate ones. Sometimes smugglers simply tucking small animals inside coat pockets or fake suitcase bottoms. They can also conceal the animal’s identity by ripping out feathers or painting shells.Impact MawCaw

Middlemen: Alternatively, some poachers may bypass the permit system entirely and use middlemen to smuggle products across borders. This method is especially useful when laundering wildlife to avoid export problems. For example, while it’s illegal to export Hyacinthine macaws from Brazil, a poacher can manipulate the system, smuggling them into Bolivia and “legally” exporting them from there.

Your turtle earrings and tiger rug are products of illegal trade, and purchasing them helps fund unlawful poachers. So what? The earrings still look great. The rug makes your mother happy. You likely aren’t going to get in trouble for owning them. Why should you care?

Unsustainable wildlife trade follows only habitat destruction in terms of its impact on species depletion. After poaching killed 96% of Black Rhinos between 1970 and 1972, CITES placed an international ban on the rhino horn in 1977. Nevertheless, even with many conservation efforts, continued poaching contributes to less than 6,000 Black Rhinos existing in the wild.

With 2,500 Bengal tigers left (currently the most numerous of all tiger subspecies) and 540 Amur tigers (up from 40 in the 1940s) it is a constant battle between conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and poachers who hunt tigers for their skin.

These represent extreme examples; animals are critically endangered even with tens
of thousands left in wild. Poachers killed 55,000 elephants solely for their ivory tusks between 2009 and 2015, leaving less than 45,000 surviving. Demand for Hawksbill turtle shells leaves 15,000 – 20,000 surviving females Hawksbill turtles.

Birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals, including primates, all suffer so long as this trade continues. This trade also disrupts the environment and the ecosystem, and impacts humans in both the short-term and long-term.

IMPACT animal furImpact Ivory






When you choose to find your aunt another present, you’re helping combat the illegal wildlife trade. But what else are people doing to help?

Many organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and TRAFFIC are dedicated to reducing this trade. Among many other methods, they enact programs to help train customs officers, federal police, and guards. They research illegal trade routes, methods of trading, and affects of the trade. Importantly, they educate everyone from consumers to manufactures about the trade.

As individuals, we can make the greatest impact by learning which products to buy and which to avoid.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services provides brochures about which products to beware of, especially when travelling abroad. Examples include:

  • Fur from seals, otters, and large cats
  • Any ivory products
  • Reptile leather products
  • Traditional Asian medicines without reading labels carefully
  • Live birds or monkeys
  • Coral
  • Any products made with turtle skin or shells
  • Caviar

Buyer Beware Guide: http://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/brochure-buyer-beware-2004.pdf