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. Experts at TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, estimate that it runs into billions of dollars.
Some examples of illegal wildlife trade are well known, such as 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 a major win for tigers, the US Senate passed legislation that will help prevent captive tigers from ending up in the illegal trade of their parts and products—a primary threat to big cats in the wild. The Big Cat Public Safety Act now goes to President Biden to sign.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The majority of WWF’s work to stop illegal wildlife trade is done in collaboration with TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. We also work closely with other 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.
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.
WWF provides technical and scientific advice to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). WWF and TRAFFIC research 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.
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.
Over four and a half years, the Google.org-funded Wildlife Crime Technology Project (WCTP) provided WWF a platform to innovate and test a number of innovative technologies, many of which have the potential to change the course of the global fight against wildlife crime.
Tiger ‘farms’ are captive facilities that breed tigers to supply or directly engage in the commercial trade of tiger parts or products. WWF is calling for greater oversight and protection of all captive tigers.
World Wildlife Fund Inc. is a nonprofit, tax-exempt charitable organization (tax ID number 52-1693387) under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Donations are tax-deductible as allowed by law.