Wildlife trade

Assorted seashells, coral, shark jaws and dried blowfish on sale in Greece
Framed butterflies, moths, beetles, bats, Emperor scorpions and tarantula spiders on sale in Rhodes, Greece

Wildlife trade refers to the commerce of products that are derived from non-domesticated animals or plants usually extracted from their natural environment or raised under controlled conditions. It can involve the trade of living or dead individuals, tissues such as skins, bones or meat, or other products. Legal wildlife trade is regulated by the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which currently has 170 member countries called Parties.[1] Illegal wildlife trade, however, is widespread and constitutes one of the major illegal economic activities, comparable to the traffic of drugs and weapons.[2] Wildlife trade is a serious conservation problem, it has a negative effect on the viability of many wildlife populations and is one of the major threats to the survival of vertebrate species.[3]


Wildlife use is a general term for all uses of wildlife products, including ritual or religious uses, consumption of bushmeat and different forms of trade. Wildlife use is usually linked to hunting or poaching. Wildlife trade can be differentiated in legal and illegal trade, and both can have domestic (local or national) or international markets, but they might be often related with each-other.[4]

Wildlife trade often includes the trade of living individuals of wildlife species as companion animals (exotic pet trade) or for zoological institutions. These individuals are sometimes semi-domesticated or bred in captivity for the purpose of trade.

Reasons for concern

Different forms of wildlife trade or use (utilization, hunting, trapping, collection or over-exploitation) are the second major threat to endangered mammals and it also ranks among the first ten threats to birds, amphibians and cycads.[3]

Wildlife trade threatens the local ecosystem, and puts all species under additional pressure at a time when they are facing threats such as over-fishing, pollution, dredging, deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction. Wildlife is traded alive or dead.

In the food chain, species higher up on the ladder ensure that the species below them do not become too abundant (hence controlling the population of those below them). Animals lower on the ladder are often non-carnivorous (but instead herbivorous) and control the abundance of plant species in a region. Due to the very large amounts of species that are removed from the ecosystem, it is not inconceivable that environmental problems will commence to occur (similar to i.e. overfishing that causes abundance of jellyfish to occur). In the example given it also becomes quickly clear that having the governments of countries where wildlife occurs crack down effectively on wildlife trade, in many instances, allow these countries to save themselves a considerable amount of money.

Survival rate of species during transport

In some instances; such as the sale of chameleons from Madagascar, organisms are transported by boat or via the air to consumers. The survival rate of these is extremely poor (only 1% survival rate).[5] This is undoubtedly caused by the illegal nature; vendors rather not risk that the chameleons were to be discovered and so do not ship them in plain view. Due to the very low survival rate, it also means that far higher amounts of organisms (in this case chameleons) are taken away from the ecosystem, to make up for the losses.

Consequences for indigenous peoples

In many instances, tribal people have become the victims of the fallout from poaching.[6] With increased demand in the illegal wildlife trade, tribal people are often direct victims of the measures implemented to protect wildlife. Often reliant upon hunting for food, they are prevented from doing so, and are frequently illegally evicted from their lands following the creation of nature reserves aimed to protect animals.[7] Tribal people are often falsely accused of contributing to the decline of species – in the case of India, for example, they bear the brunt of anti-tiger poaching measures,[8] despite the main reason for the tiger population crash in the 20th century being due to hunting by European colonists and Indian elites.[9] In fact, contrary to popular belief, there is strong evidence to show that they effectively regulate and manage animal populations.[10]

Illegal wildlife trade

Shark fin for sale in Hong Kong

Interpol has estimated the extent of the illegal wildlife trade between $10 billion and $20 billion per year. While the trade is a global one, with routes extending to every continent, conservationists say the problem is most acute in Southeast Asia. There, trade linkages to key markets in China, the United States, and the European Union; lax law enforcement; weak border controls; and the perception of high profit and low risk contribute to large-scale commercial wildlife trafficking. The ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and external funders, is one response to the region's illegal wildlife trade networks.

Asia and Africa

Notable trade hubs of the wildlife trade include Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, which offers smugglers direct jet service to Europe, the Middle East, North America and Africa. The Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok is a known center of illicit wildlife trade, and the sale of lizards, primates, and other endangered species has been widely documented. Trade routes connecting in Southeast Asia link Madagascar to the United States (for the sale of turtles, lemurs, and other primates), Cambodia to Japan (for the sale of slow lorises as pets), and the sale of many species to China.

Morocco has been identified as a transit country for wildlife moving from Africa to Europe due to its porous borders with Spain. Wildlife is present in the markets as photo props, sold for decoration, used in medicinal practices, sold as pets and used to decorate shops. Large numbers of reptiles are sold in the markets, especially spur-thighed tortoises. Although leopards have most likely been extirpated from Morocco, their skins can regularly be seen sold openly as medicinal products or decoration in the markets.[11]

Despite international and local laws designed to crack down on the trade, live animals and animal parts — often those of endangered or threatened species - are sold in open-air markets throughout Asia. The animals involved in the trade end up as trophies, or in specialty restaurants. Some are used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Despite the name, elements of TCM are widely adopted throughout East and Southeast Asia, among both Chinese and non-Chinese communities.

The trade also includes demand for exotic pets, and consumption of wildlife for meat. Large volumes of fresh water tortoises and turtles, snakes, pangolins and monitor lizards are consumed as meat in Asia, including in specialty restaurants that feature wildlife as gourmet dining.

South America

Although the volume of animals traded may be greater in Southeast Asia, animal trading in Latin America is widespread as well.

In open air Amazon markets in Iquitos and Manaus, a variety of rainforest animals are sold openly as meat, such as agoutis, peccaries, turtles, turtle eggs, walking catfish, etc. In addition, many species are sold as pets. The keeping of parrots and monkeys as pets by villagers along the Amazon is commonplace. But the sale of these "companion" animals in open markets is rampant. Capturing the baby tamarins, marmosets, spider monkeys, saki monkeys, etc., in order to sell them, often requires shooting the mother primate out of a treetop with her clinging child; the youngster may or may not survive the fall. With the human population increasing, such practices have a serious impact on the future prospects for many threatened species. The United States is a popular destination for Amazonian rainforest animals. They are smuggled across borders the same way illegal drugs are - in the trunks of cars, in suitcases, in crates disguised as something else.

In Venezuela more than 400 animal species are involved in subsistence hunting, domestic and international (illegal) trade. These activities are widespread and might overlap in many regions, although they are driven by different markets and target different species.[4]


Through both deep web (password protected, encrypted) and dark web (special portal browsers) markets, participants can trade and transact illegal substances, including wildlife. However the amount of activity is still negligible compared to the amount on the open or surface web. As stated in an examination of search engine key words relating to wildlife trade in an article published by Conservation Biology, "This negligible level of activity related to the illegal trade of wildlife on the dark web relative to the open and increasing trade on the surface web may indicate a lack of successful enforcement against illegal wildlife trade on the surface web."[12]

Legal trade of wildlife has occurred for many species for a number of reasons, including commercial trade, pet trade as well as conservation attempts. Whilst most examples of legal trade of wildlife are as a result of large population numbers or pests, there is potential for the use of legal trade to reduce illegal trade threatening many species. Legalising the trade of species can allow for more regulated harvesting of animals and prevent illegal over-harvesting.

Examples of successful wildlife trade



Trade of crocodiles in Australia has been largely successful. Saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) and freshwater crocodiles (Crocodylus johnstoni) are listed under CITES Appendix II. Commercial harvesting of these crocodiles occurs in Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia, including harvesting from wild populations as well as approved captive breeding programs based on quotas set by the Australian government.[13]

For more details on this topic, see Kangaroo industry.

Kangaroos are currently legally harvested for commercial trade and export in Australia. There are a number of species included in the trade including:

Harvesting of kangaroos for legal trade does not occur in National Parks and is determined by quotas set by state government departments. Active kangaroo management has gained a commercial value in the trade of kangaroo meat, hides and other products.[14]

North America


Alligators have been traded commercially in Florida and other American states as part of a management program.[15] The use of legal trade and quotas have allowed management of a species as well as economic incentive for sustaining habitat with greater ecological benefits.

Legalising trade for endangered species

The 15th Conference of the Parties of CITES was held in Doha, Qatar in March 2010.[16]

Under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), species listed under Appendix I are threatened with extinction and are prohibited for commercial trade. This rule applies to all species threatened with extinction, except in exception circumstances.[17] Commercial trade of endangered species listed under Appendix II and III is not prohibited although Parties must provide non-detriment finding to show that the species in the wild is not being unsustainably harvested for the purpose of trade.

Organizations addressing illegal wildlife trade

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Wildlife trade.


  1. CITES 2013. Member countries. CITES Secretariat, Geneva.
  2. Jessica B. Izzo, PC Pets for a Price: Combating Online and Traditional Wildlife Crime Through International Harmonization and Authoritative Polices William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Journal, Vol. 34 Iss. 3 (2010).
  3. 1 2 Vié, J.-C.; Hilton-Taylor, C.; Stuart, S.N. (2009). Wildlife in a Changing World – An Analysis of the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (PDF). Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. p. 180. ISBN 978-2-8317-1063-1. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  4. 1 2 Sánchez-Mercado, Ada; Asmüssen, Marianne; Rodríguez-Clark, Kathryn M.; Rodríguez, Jon Paul; Jedrzejewski, Wlodzimierz (2016). "Using spatial patterns in illegal wildlife uses to reveal connections between subsistence hunting and trade". Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.12744.
  5. Madagascar, land of the chameleons documentary
  6. Survival International. "Poaching". Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  7. "India: 'Jungle Book' tribes illegally evicted from tiger reserve". The Ecologist. 14 January 2015. Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  8. Survival International. "Tiger Reserves, India". Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  9. Sharon Guynup. "A Concise History of Tiger Hunting in India". Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  10. "Wildlife Conservation Efforts Are Violating Tribal Peoples' Rights". Deep Green Resistance News Service. Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  11. Bergin and Nijman (2014) Open, Unregulated Trade in Wildlife in Morocco's Markets. TRAFFIC Bulletin Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267748463_Open_Unregulated_Trade_in_Wildlife_in_Moroccos_Markets [accessed Mar 23, 2015]
  12. Harrison, J.R., Roberts, D.L., Hernandez-Castro, J. (2016). "Assessing the extent and nature of wildlife trade on the dark web". Conservation Biology. 30 (4): 900–904.
  13. Leach G.J, Delaney, R; Fukuda, Y (2009) Management Program for the Saltwater Crocodile in the Northern Territory of Australia, 2009 - 2014. Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, Environment, The Arts and Sport, Darwin
  14. Pople, T; Grigg, G. 1999. Commercial harvesting of Kangaroos in Australia for Environment Australia August 1999.
  15. Dutton, H; Brunell, AA; Carbonneau, D; Hord, L; Stiegler, S; Visscher, C; White, J; Woodward, A, 2002. Florida's Alligator Management Program an Update 1987 to 2001 pp. 23-30 in: Crocodiles: Proceedings of the 16th Working Meeting of the Crocodile Specialist Group, IUCN- The World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
  16. CITES 2013. Fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties. CITES Secretariat, Geneva.
  17. CITES, 2014. How Cites Works. [Online] Available: http://www.cites.org/eng/disc/how.php. Accessed 10 06 2014.
  18. NRA-ILA. "NRA-ILA - Obama Administration's Proposed Ban on Domestic Sale of Ivory Could Impact Gun Owners". Retrieved 10 June 2015.

Further reading

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