The Legacy of the USAID ROUTES Partnership

Thai officials seize shipment of illegal African elephant tusks.

Wildlife trafficking, the illegal movement of wildlife and wildlife parts or products across borders, is estimated to be worth $5 billion-$23 billion a year, making it one of the most high-profit, low-risk illicit trades in the world. Wildlife trafficking is a transport-intensive criminal activity. Traffickers often rely heavily on the efficiency of air travel to smuggle illegal wildlife aboard passenger flights and in cargo to send to markets around the world.

Officer holding up pangolin scales

For over six years, the USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) Partnership brought together government agencies, law enforcement, non-governmental organizations, and transport sector companies to disrupt wildlife trafficking through legal transportation supply chains in the aviation industry. The tools, resources, and alliances developed through ROUTES continue to form a key element of the concerted international response to addressing wildlife trafficking and associated criminal activities worldwide. This was possible with the support of the aviation industry and a core group of partners collaborating with the US government including Airports Council International (ACI), the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, and WWF. The ROUTES Partnership ended in 2022 but efforts continue with support from the resources and tools developed under ROUTES and the commitments from the transport sector to address wildlife trafficking.

“USAID saw an innovative angle to fill a vital gap in the fight against wildlife trafficking globally and its six-year investment brought it to fruition,” said Crawford Allan, co-creator and supervisor of the ROUTES Partnership.



Impact of ROUTES

Prior to ROUTES, there was very little awareness among the air transport industry about the issue of wildlife trafficking. Without this knowledge, the industry lacked the impetus and resources to take action. Highlighting the extent of wildlife trafficking using data analytics and providing resources and training played an important role in communicating the need and urgency of the issue.

“It’s been encouraging to see companies are wanting to take this work forward, that wildlife trafficking is continuing to become an increasingly important issue to aviation stakeholders and that the drive to combat it is continuing to grow,” said Cori MacFarland, senior corporate engagement officer at WWF.

Engagement, Collaboration, and Resources

Since its inception, collaboration among stakeholders played a key role in achieving the goals of the ROUTES Partnership. Engagement was prioritized in “source” regions in Africa—where illegal wildlife, parts, and products came from— and “market” regions in Asia—where those illegal items were sold, while also engaging companies in transit locations based in Europe and the Middle East. In the last two years of ROUTES the partnership engaged the Latin America region. While we made significant progress, we must continue that momentum.

Outcomes & Resources

Workshops and training

ROUTES hosted numerous workshops and conducted training in 20 countries around the world. These workshops equipped organizations with the proper knowledge and training needed to combat wildlife trafficking.

E-learning module screen


Along with in-person training, ROUTES released e-learning modules available to cabin crew, cargo acceptance staff, check-in staff, and ground handlers. These roles were identified with the help of the industry as being in key positions to detect instances of possible wildlife trafficking. By training employees to help support law enforcement, airports are able to more effectively prevent and address wildlife trafficking.

E-learning modules aimed at informing airport and airline staff of common indicators of wildlife trafficking.

Animal Smuggling Report Cover


Over the course of the Partnership, ROUTES developed a series of reports that highlighted the breadth and impacts of wildlife trafficking including 10 country assessments (China, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, Kenya, Malaysia, South Africa, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United States, and Vietnam), and additional reports providing information on specialty issues, such as the connection between wildlife trafficking and zoonotic disease spread.

The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the need for combating animal smuggling in aviation in order to prevent the spread of future zoonotic diseases. Between 2009 and 2019, almost 500 zoonotic-risk trafficking cases were from the air transport sector, according to the C4DS Air Seizure Database. ROUTES reports have been used by several organizations, the aviation industry, and government agencies to create awareness and implement strategies for public action.

Industry guidance

In collaboration with industry associations, ROUTES developed guidance materials to help key decision-makers prioritize action against wildlife trafficking, guidance on recommended next steps, and a collection of best practices including case studies.

New collaborations

ROUTES opened the door for the air transport industry to take a collaborative approach to tackle wildlife trafficking. Along with key partners, TRAFFIC and WWF led efforts to implement ROUTES projects globally and regionally. In Latin America, a prime target for wildlife trafficking because of its rich biodiversity, ROUTES partners organized a series of webinars and virtual meetings to inform the industry of the issue, share commonly trafficked species from that region, and highlight common trafficking methods.

In August 2021, ROUTES hosted a virtual stakeholder meeting with over 50 representatives from the transport industry, government, law enforcement, and local non-governmental organizations. For many, this was the first time meeting with these stakeholders to discuss how they can work together to address wildlife trafficking. By creating a space where national stakeholders could interact with their peers, representatives were able to co-create action plans specific to their country that would continue their efforts beyond the ROUTES Partnership.

The Future in Aviation post-ROUTES

ROUTES helped generate passion, commitment, and initiative within the air transport industry to address wildlife trafficking. For its six years of implementation, ROUTES activities and outputs focused on ensuring that the necessary enabling mechanisms were established within the transport industry so that—together with the guidance and resources that were produced— stakeholders would have the support they need to continue taking action and build on the progress and successes achieved so far.

Screenshot of Wildlife Sentinel app

Wildlife Sentinel is an app that helps staff at airports, airlines, and other aviation companies report suspected wildlife trafficking and corruption and is freely available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store and continues to be hosted by Crime Stoppers International.

All ROUTES resources are evergreen and will continue to be freely available for company partners to integrate and leverage. In particular, the ROUTES website and resources are hosted on the USAID Biodiversity Links website. Access to ROUTES training materials will remain available through the TRAFFIC website, ACI wildlife trafficking webpage, and IATA wildlife trafficking webpage.

As a key partner of ROUTES, the United for Wildlife (UfW) Transportation Task Force continues to encourage all transport companies to consider becoming signatories of the Buckingham Palace Declaration—a landmark agreement committing to shutting down the routes exploited by traffickers of the illegal wildlife trade moving their products—to take part in regional task force meetings in Asia, Southern Africa, and the Americas, and to co-develop and implement action plans to fulfill these commitments with the resources generated through ROUTES.

Partners continue to sustain ROUTES-led technology initiatives, such as the reporting app Wildlife Sentinel. In addition, ROUTES partners WWF, IATA, and TRAFFIC continue to coordinate the deployment of an x-ray machine learning algorithm at key airports in Southern Africa to detect priority wildlife products.

As part of ROUTES, ACI and IATA co-developed Information Papers and Working Papers for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to encourage recognition of the importance of wildlife trafficking prevention in air transport. In 2022, at the 41st ICAO Assembly, the Assembly approved new clauses related to wildlife trafficking to their Resolution (Assembly Resolution A40-16) which urges cooperation on wildlife trafficking issues amongst Member States and various national, regional, international parties, and other interested stakeholders.

“ROUTES was a game-changer for ACI in terms of bringing the necessary resources and expertise so we could support our member airports better understand their role in helping to prevent this complex and transnational crime.”Juliana Scavuzzi, Senior Director, Sustainability, Environmental Protection, and Legal Affairs at ACI World

Wildlife trafficking is a global conservation issue that no single project or initiative can solve alone. It is an issue that requires the private and public sector to convene, collaborate, and tackle together. With the champions and commitments solidified through the ROUTES Partnership, the transport sector is poised to be a leader in these conversations.