Illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar business involving the unlawful harvest of and trade in live animals and plants or parts and products derived from them. Wildlife is traded as skins, leather goods or souvenirs; as food or traditional medicine; as pets, and in many other forms. Illegal wildlife trade runs the gamut from illegal logging of protected forests to supply the demand for exotic woods, to the illegal fishing of endangered marine life for food, and the poaching of elephants to supply the demand for ivory.
Illegal wildlife trade is also often unsustainable, harming wild populations of animals and plants and pushing endangered species toward extinction. Endangered animals and plants are often the target of wildlife crime because of their rarity and increased economic value. Furthermore, illegal trade negatively impacts a country’s natural resources and local communities that might otherwise benefit from tourism or legal, sustainable trade.
Thousands of wildlife species are threatened by illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade. For example, in recent months significant media attention has gone to the plight of the world's rhinoceros species, which are facing increased poaching as demand for their horns increases in Asia. In some parts of Asia, rhino horn is considered to be a powerful traditional medicine, used to treat a variety of ailments. While there is little scientific evidence to support these claims, the dramatic rise in poaching to supply this demand is pushing rhinos toward the brink of extinction.
CITES and Illegal Wildlife Trade
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has brought together 175 nations to combat the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade through a uniform regulatory regime and increased coordination on a global scale. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (Service) Division of Management Authority and Division of Scientific Authority, as well as the Office of Law Enforcement, are primarily responsible for implementing and enforcing CITES in the United States.
Recently, CITES founded the International Consortium on Combatting Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), a collaborative effort between the CITES Secretariat, INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Bank and the World Customs Organization (WCO). ICCWC was formed to increase prosecution and punishment for caught smugglers and poachers as well as increase law enforcement in developing nations. Visit the CITES website to learn more about ICCWC.
Efforts to Stop Illegal Wildlife Trade
In response to the increasing level of illegal wildlife trade over the last several decades, the Service has developed the most advanced and robust wildlife law enforcement program in the world. Stationing inspectors at ports across the country and providing enforcement training around the world, the United States is an international leader in combatting wildlife crime. In addition to enforcement efforts, the Service has also worked to increase consumer awareness through outreach to travelers going abroad and consumers of exotic wildlife domestically. To learn more about the Service’s efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade, visit the Service's Office of Law Enforcement.
The Service's Division of International Conservation (DIC) oversees the implementation of several international grant programs, including the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund, the African Elephant Conservation Fund, and the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund. A portion of the grants issued through these funds go toward programs aimed at combatting wildlife crime.
DIC also funds several regional programs to directly address wildlife conservation efforts, including combatting wildlife crime. You can read more about a few of these efforts below.
Law Enforcement Training Enables Illegal Ivory Seizures in East Africa
Elephant poaching is increasing throughout Africa and the amount of illegal ivory shipments destined for markets in Southeast Asia has surged dramatically over the last few years. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Without Borders – African Elephant Conservation Fund is working together with the FREELAND Foundation to fund a cooperative training and joint poaching investigation by the Kenya Wildlife Service and Royal Thai Police officials, accompanied by the Lusaka Agreement Task Force. As a result of this law enforcement training and investigation effort, several large shipments of ivory have been detected and seized at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport prior to leaving the country. This project has enabled the coordination of Kenyan, Tanzanian, and Thai law enforcement authorities to trace ivory shipments recently seized in Bangkok back to the country of origin to identify international smuggling routes.
Mobile Tiger Patrols Help Curb Wildlife Crime in Sumatra, Indonesia
In Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and Bukit Balai Renjang Landscape, tiger populations have been significantly decreasing over the last several years due to severe poaching and habitat fragmentation. With the support of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Without Borders – Rhino Tiger Conservation Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society and their Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU) and Wildlife Response Unit (WRU) are conducting human-wildlife conflict patrols, wildlife crime investigations (including legal aid for the prosecution of illegal poachers), and tiger conservation education events to help protect this charismatic species. Between 2006 and 2008, the WCU generated 63 reports of illegal hunting, trading, smuggling or possession, which led 35 arrest or confiscation operations. Monitoring for illegal wildlife trade has been expanded to other sites outside Lampung Province in Sumatra, where WCU has been working for the last 6 years, to include Palembang in South Sumatra and Jakarta, the capital of Sumatra. Both are important exit points for wildlife smuggling and also Indonesia’s two largest wildlife markets, including markets for wild-caught tigers and tiger parts. Together with TRAFFIC, the WCU team and the national police raided a factory and seized 14 tons of frozen pangolins, worth 2.7 million dollars, and arrested three suspects. This was the biggest wildlife trafficking law enforcement seizure in Indonesian history.
To learn more about DIC’s regional programs, click here.
How You Can Stop Illegal Wildlife Trade
While a majority of illegal wildlife trade is happening on a commercial scale, sometimes tourists participate in the trade by unknowingly buying or traveling with illegal items, often bought back as souvenirs or gifts purchased abroad. To ensure that you are following the law when importing or exporting wildlife and wildlife products, visit our Travel and Trade section and our Branch of Permits page.
Also visit our How You Can Help page for tips on how you can reduce the illegal trade of endangered and threatened species.