Jargon buster: What is wildlife trade?

Conservationists often talk about wildlife crime, and the threat it poses for our natural world. But it can be hard to get to grips with this complex topic.

So what is wildlife trade, and is it a problem?

Put simply, wildlife trade is any sale or exchange of products derived from wild animals and plants. By far the largest component of this trade is in timber and fish, but it also includes live animals and plants, meat, skins, furs, medicinal ingredients and ornaments.

Wildlife is used for range of purposes, for example as food, fuel, building material, healthcare, ornamentation, and for sport.

Trade in wildlife has been taking place for thousands of years. Most wildlife trade is legal and is an important source of income for many people, including some of the world’s poorest. Between harvest and consumption there is a whole industry around storage, transportation, manufacturing, marketing, export and retail of wildlife products.

We are all involved in wildlife trade in some way, even if just as end consumers.

The problem arises, however, when this trade becomes unsustainable – i.e. when we use natural resources more quickly than they can replenish themselves, leading to population declines. Unsustainable wildlife trade poses a huge threat to our natural world, especially when compounded by other threats such as habitat loss.

For many (but not all) species that are over-exploited, international and national laws are in place to regulate levels of trade and to try and ensure that we are not depleting wildlife populations to extinction.

When the harvest and trade of wild species operates outside these laws it is generally called illegal trade or poaching.

Illegally exploited hardwood extracted from Niassa National Reserve and surrounding region. Credit: J A Bruson/FFI.

Illegally exploited hardwood extracted from Niassa National Reserve and surrounding region. Credit: J A Bruson/FFI.

An alarming growth in illegal trade – why now?

Human population growth, increasing wealth, and easier access to wildlife (due to better road and other transport networks) have all contributed to a worrying increase in the extraction of wild species.

The alarming recent escalation in poaching of species such as elephant, rhino, tiger and pangolin is being driven by a growing demand for wildlife products, particularly in east Asia.

Rhino poaching, for example, is driven by demand from Vietnam where unprecedented levels of disposable income are fuelling a boom in the market for luxury goods, including rhino horn. Though associated with traditional medicinal use, rhino horn is today mainly used to demonstrate social status.

For many species, this booming demand has led to a recent shift from small-scale local consumption to larger-scale commercial – and often international – trade.

Highly valuable, highly organised

Illegal trade in wildlife is now estimated to be worth a phenomenal US$8-10 billion a year, excluding timber and fish. This makes it one of the largest sources of criminal income in the world alongside trafficking of arms, drugs and people.

Products such as ivory and rhino horn are now so lucrative that highly organised international criminal gangs have become involved, which means that poaching and trafficking has become increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced.

With rewards so high, incentives to collude in illegal hunting can be very strong – especially for those whose income is low or insecure. Hunters may be supplied with guns and sophisticated equipment, which forces many of those charged with protecting wild species to invest in armed anti-poaching activities. And as poachers become better armed, anti-poaching teams are increasingly putting their lives at risk.

Extinction – a very real threat

Illegal wildlife trade is one of the biggest threats to the survival of some of our most endangered species.

Last year an unprecedented 1,215 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone, 20% more than in 2013 and equivalent to one rhino every seven hours. In 2013 at least 20,000 elephants were killed. It is thought that around 100 tigers have been poached for illegal trade each year this century. These species will be extinct in our lifetime if these rates of poaching are sustained.

The threat of extinction due to illegal wildlife trade is very real. In 2010 the western black rhino was officially declared extinct, with the primary cause identified as poaching. Only two northern white rhinos remain on earth.

White Rhinoceros

White Rhinoceros. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Tip of the iceberg

Despite their dominating the headlines, elephants and rhinos are not the only species being wiped out at such alarming rates. This is just the tip of the iceberg: pangolins, tigers, turtles, snakes, sharks, seahorses and many other animal and plant species are also being targeted.

Despite a ban on commercial trade it is estimated that over a million pangolins have been illegally traded in the last decade – and as endangered Asian populations have plummeted, intercontinental trade in African pangolin species has grown to satisfy on-going demand for their meat and scales from east Asia.

In the marine realm, meanwhile, official figures show that 64 million seahorses are taken from the wild each year; however it is thought that the actual figure could be closer to 150 million. Unsurprisingly, seahorse fisheries are reported to have declined by 50% in the last five years.

Local fisherman holding an illegally hunted Hawksbill turtle - Bocas del Toro, Panama. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Local fisherman holding an illegally hunted Hawksbill turtle – Bocas del Toro, Panama. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

The human cost

In 2013 over a hundred rangers were killed, most by poachers and militia, and most in areas rich in high value species such as rhino, elephant and rosewood. These are only the deaths that have been reported – sadly the actual figure is likely to be much higher.

As well as leaving countless families bereaved, illegal wildlife trade is detrimental to the wellbeing, security and future prospects of a broad swathe of those living nearest to affected wildlife populations.

It depletes countries of their natural heritage and removes crucial revenue from activities such as wildlife tourism. It can also marginalise local people, undermining their access to vital resources or creating economic dependence on unsustainable use of wildlife.

This in turn undermines valuable local incentives for conservation by jeopardising wildlife products and services that make direct, positive contributions to local livelihoods, wellbeing and culture.

What can be done?

Addressing unsustainable trade in wildlife is a global challenge, requiring cooperation between source, transit and destination countries, and between local communities, non-governmental organisations and government agencies. Key approaches include strengthening and enforcing legislation, reducing demand for wildlife products, and engaging communities to address unsustainable use of vital natural resources.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is committed to tackling illegal wildlife trade and has been actively addressing this growing problem for more than a decade.

In response to the alarming rise in illegal trade in endangered species, FFI has recently established an Illegal Wildlife Trade Initiative to expand and strengthen its response to this critical issue.

Over the next five years, FFI’s work to address illegal wildlife trade will focus on:

  1. Reducing poaching of legally-protected wildlife species
  2. Reducing consumer demand for endangered species
  3. Developing young conservation leaders to tackle threats from wildlife trade
  4. Developing innovative technologies and finance mechanisms to address illegal wildlife trade more effectively

Learn more about FFI’s work to address illegal trade in wildlife.