Illegal Wildlife Trade



Rhino poaching in South Africa increased from 13 to 1,004 between 2007 and 2013.

Wildlife crime is a big business. Run by dangerous international networks, wildlife and animal parts are trafficked much like illegal drugs and arms. By its very nature, it is almost impossible to obtain reliable figures for the value of the illegal wildlife trade. It is estimated to run into billions of dollars.

Some examples of illegal wildlife trade are well known, such as the poaching of elephants for ivory and tigers for their skins and bones. However, countless other species are similarly overexploited, from marine turtles to timber trees. Not all wildlife trade is illegal. Wild plants and animals from tens of thousands of species are caught or harvested from the wild and then sold legitimately as food, pets, ornamental plants, leather, tourist ornaments, and medicine. Wildlife trade escalates into a crisis when an increasing proportion is illegal and unsustainable—directly threatening the survival of many species in the wild.

Stamping out wildlife crime is a priority for WWF because it’s the largest direct threat to the future of many of the world’s most threatened species. It is second only to habitat destruction in overall threats against species survival.

In Viet Nam, rescued tigers find a safe haven

When tigers are confiscated from the illegal trade or voluntarily surrendered by owners, they are transported to the Hanoi Wildlife Rescue Center where they are cared for, alongside other rescued animals, like birds and reptiles.

Close up of a tiger's face with blurred enclosure in the foreground


Illeagal Wildlife Trade

As human populations have grown, so has the demand for wildlife. People in many countries are accustomed to a lifestyle which fuels demand for wildlife. They expect access to a variety of seafoods, leather goods, timbers, medicinal ingredients and textiles. At the other end, extreme poverty means some people see wildlife as valuable barter for trade.

High Profit Margins

Illegal wildlife trade is driven by high profit margins and, in many cases, the high prices paid for rare species. Vulnerable wild animals are pushed further to the edge of extinction when nature can’t replenish their stocks to keep up with the rate of human consumption.

illegal wildlife trade

Demand Drives Crime

Rhino horn, elephant ivory and tiger products continue to command high prices among consumers, especially in Asia. In Vietnam, the recent myth that rhino horn can cure cancer has led to massive poaching in South Africa and pushed the price of rhino horn to rival gold.

Gaps in Protection

Corruption, toothless laws, weak judicial systems and light sentences allow criminal networks to keep plundering wildlife with little regard to consequences. These factors make illegal wildlife trade a low risk business with high returns. The poachers—often poor locals—are the usually the only ones caught, leaving the real masterminds and their network safe and operational with the ability to strike again.


Illeagal Wildlife Trade

There are certain places in the world where wildlife trade is particularly threatening. These areas are called “wildlife trade hotspots.” They include China's international borders, trade hubs in East/Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, the eastern borders of the European Union, some markets in Mexico, parts of the Caribbean, parts of Indonesia and New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. While these hotspots might be trouble areas at present, they also offer opportunities for great conservation success, if action and funds are well-focused. Wildlife trade alone is a major threat to some species, but its impact is frequently made worse by habitat loss and other pressures.

Compromised Security

 The very existence of illegal trade undermines efforts made by countries to protect their natural resources. Illegal wildlife trade is run by criminal networks with wide, international reach. Some traffic illegal drugs, arms and even people. Recent evidence shows that some networks are also linked to terrorist organizations.

Altering Livelihoods

Local wildlife is considered an important resource by many communities, often the poorest, in the developing world. Some rural households depend on wild animals for protein, trees for fuel, and both wild animals and plants for natural cures.

Interruption of Nature

Overexploitation of species affects the living planet in wider ways. Just as overfishing causes imbalances in the whole marine system, our complex web of life on earth depends on careful and thoughtful use of wildlife species and their habitats.

Invasive Species

Many invasive species have been purposely introduced by wildlife traders or buyers. These invasive species prey on or compete with native species and are a major threat to the balance of nature. For example pet Burmese pythons let loose by their owners are now considered a major pest in Florida’s everglades.

Incidental Killing of Non-Target Species

Like marine species killed through bycatch, incidental killing of animals also happens on land. For example, crude traps set for musk deer or duikers cause damage and death to a variety of animals besides those intended.

What WWF Is Doing

We work closely with partners, including conservation organizations, local communities, and governments. WWF's expertise ensures that the threats to the environment from wildlife trade are tackled from an informed and global standpoint.

Tightening and Enforcing Legislation

It’s one thing to ban or limit trade in a particular species, but another to effectively enforce this—especially in developing countries where training and funds for enforcement are often lacking. Many countries also still lack strict national legislation and/or appropriate penalties for illegal wildlife trade. To address this challenge, WWF helps countries comply with Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulations by supporting program development, workshops and the creation of regulations. We also assist enforcement efforts and fund antipoaching brigades.


Public Education

Illeagal Wildlife Trade

One of the most powerful tools for addressing illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade is persuading consumers to make informed choices. This includes the people buying the end product as well as shop-keepers, suppliers and manufacturers. WWF actively discourages the purchase of certain wildlife goods. We encourage the production and purchase of sustainable wildlife goods such as those certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). WWF works hand-in-hand with communities around the world, providing practical support to overcome poverty and help them use local wildlife in a sustainable way.

Supporting Regulations

WWF provides technical and scientific advice to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). WWF researches illegal wildlife trade routes, the effects of wildlife trade on particular species, and deficiencies in wildlife trade laws. This information is essential for CITES and supports new plans for confronting illegal wildlife trade.

Stop Wildlife Crime

WWF is asking for your help to save wildlife and people from becoming victims of wildlife crime. Join our Stop Wildlife Crime campaign and help us:

  • Push governments to protect threatened animal populations by increasing law enforcement, imposing strict deterrents, reducing demand for endangered species products and honoring international commitments made under CITES.
  • Speak up on behalf of those on the frontlines being threatened by armed poachers so they are properly equipped, trained and compensated.
  • Reduce demand for illegal wildlife parts and products by encouraging others to ask questions and get the facts before buying any wildlife or plant product.


  • The Legacy of the USAID ROUTES Partnership

    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.

  • WILDLABS.NET: Connectivity and collaboration to save the planet

    WILDLABS.NET, a new conservation technology network, brings together conservationists, technologists, engineers, data scientists, entrepreneurs and change makers in a central, open space to share information, ideas, tools and resources.

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