The illegal animal trade — which includes the trafficking of ivory, tiger parts, rhinoceros horn, shark fin, exotic birds, reptile skin, bushmeat and wildlife products — is valued at least $10 billion and may be twice that. The trade includes the sale of live animals for pets, rare butterflies for collectors, and animal parts for medicines or exotic garments or foods. It involves more than 350 million plant and animal specimens every year.

WWF-Philippines said the global illegal wildlife trade is estimated to yield at least $19 billion per year, comprising the fourth-largest illegal global trade after narcotics, product and currency counterfeiting and human trafficking. It said the risks are low compared with other crimes, and that high-level traders are rarely arrested, prosecuted or convicted. [Source: Teresa Cerojano, Associated Press, April 15, 2013]

China is the largest market but the United States is a close second, with many people buying exotic pets, skins and ivory items online. Many illegally sold wild animals end up in the United States, Germany and Japan. Snakes and tortoises are preferred by smugglers because they survive long plane trips. Monkeys and birds are more fragile.

The money earned from the illegal trade of living animals and dead animal parts is roughly equal to that illegal weapons smuggling and second only to drugs as an illegal business. Organized crime is thought to be involved in the trade of ivory, coral, snake skins, conch shells, shahtoosh and abalone. Many smugglers who made a living in gold and narcotics now are into wildlife trading. Among the attractions are the light sentences if you get caught and the low probability of getting caught because of the low priority given to wildlife crimes by authorities.

Michael Casey of AP wrote: “To understand the extent of the illicit wildlife trade across Southeast Asia, a good place to start is one of the hundreds of teeming markets that serve as key transit points for illegal animals throughout the region and beyond. Most — like Bangkok's Chatuchak Weekend Market or Jakarta's Pramuka Market — are filled with parrots, lizards and turtles that are sold illegally for the pet trade. Behind closed doors, buyers can find everything from cuddly creatures to black bears, elephants and orangutans that often end up in safari parks or circuses. Farther afield and even more brazen, remote markets along Thailand's borders with Myanmar and Laos specialize in animal parts — furry bear claws, bloody tiger skins, mountain goat horns — destined for Chinese consumers looking for a miraculous cancer cure or special aphrodisiac. [Michael Casey, AP, December 23, 2006]

Zoos, the Internet and the Illegal Animal Trade

The Internet has been a boon for the exotic animal traders and detriment to threatened species. Among the animals and animal products available on the web are a young giraffes for $15,000, a black leopard for $4,000 gorilla for $8,131, baby chimpanzees for $60,000, cotton-top tamarins for $2,500, hawksbill turtle shells for $120, elephant bone sculptures for $18,000, crocodile skin boots, seahorse skeletons, ivory sculptures, and shahtoosh shawls.

A survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found 146 live primates, 5,527 elephant products, 526 turtle and tortise shells, 2,630 reptile products and 239 wild cat products for sale in a single week in 2005.

Animal traffickers are increasingly looking to zoos as sources for animals for exotic pet trade. At least 700 animals — including golden lion tamarins, Peruvian spider monkeys, leopard tortoises and green-winged macaws — were stolen from European zoos over several years in the mid 2000s. Many are thought to have ended up in the illegal animal trade. The kidnappers sneak into the zoos at night and cut the locks of the animal’s cages and grab the animals as they sleep.

Anne Chaon wrote in the New Straits Times: “From ivory trinkets to live parrots, the Internet has become a virtual supermarket in imperilled species that is hard to track and even harder to crack, say experts. With a quarter of humanity coming online over the last 15 years, the scale of the problem has caught global wildlife police off-guard, according to the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). “Contemporary international law has fallen behind in its consideration of wildlife trade conducted via the Internet,” CITES admits. With few resources of its own, CITES has delegated the task of assessing the scope of illicit e-commerce to non-governmental organisations. [Source: Anne Chaon, New Straits Times, March 23, 2010]

An ambitious, 11-nation investigation carried out by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), released in Doha, has uncovered a flourishing traffic in live animals, including primates, rare reptiles and exotic birds. It also found thousands of products — supposed culinary delicacies and health potions to jewellery — extracted from big cats, rhinos, elephants and bears. All the contraband came from flora and fauna listed on CITES Appendix I, which bans international commerce. Specimens and items spotted during a six-week survey in mid-2008 had an advertised value of nearly $4 million. “Overall, the results show a high volume of wildlife trade conducted via the Internet, with thousands of CITES-listed specimens offered for sale on the Internet every week,” according to a report of the probe. Seventy per cent of the trade was based in the United States, with China and Britain each accounting for about eight per cent. Among live species, exotic birds dominated, while ivory was by far the top category among derived products. “It is rarely whole tusks.

Usually is it small items,” said Celine Sissler-Bienvenue, IFAW’s senior elephant expert. Grace Ge Gabriel, who heads the organisation’s China operations, has seen a boom in online sales of tiger wine, a combination of rice wine and tiger bones that has been typically aged three, six or nine years. “Online, these ads are mainly targeting the Chinese diaspora,” she said. Likewise potions containing bear bile, used in traditional Chinese medicines to treat ailments ranging from liver disorders to haemorrhoids to hepatitis. The fluid is extracted over months or years from live bears through a drip tube surgically inserted through the animal’s abdomen. “The Chinese market is saturated, but Canadian and American customs are constantly seizing shipments,” Ge Gabriel said. In some cases, Internet sales may be driving species not yet listed under the Convention toward extinction.

CITES officials highlighted the plight of a small cousin of the salamander called Kaiser’s spotted newt (Neurergus kaiser), native to Iran. Only 1,000 specimens remain in the wild, experts estimate, but a 2006 Internet survey found several sites advertising the colourful creatures for 220 euros a piece. “One Ukrainian company said they had sold more than 200 — all caught in the wild — in one year,” said Ernie Cooper, an investigator in Canada for an environmental NGO called TRAFFIC.

Most wildlife sales on the Internet are small-scale, the surveys showed. “The large crime syndicates have much better ways to sell their merchandise, even in shops,” said Ge Gabriel. Since 2007, major online auction sites — including eBay and Chinese giant — have prohibited trade in ivory and live species.

But even as law enforcement has begun to crack down, online vendors have become more wily, obfuscating their wares with descriptions such as “made from the teeth of the world’s largest land mammal”. And even if police can trace an offer to a fixed address, products have often been sold within a matter of hours, officials say.

Ruthless Crime Gangs Driving Global Wildlife Trade

In March 2013, Amelie Bottollier-Depois of AFP wrote: “Ruthless and heavily armed "criminal syndicates" linked to drug smugglers and militias are running the global wildlife trade and turning their guns on the park rangers tasked with protecting endangered species. The illegal trade "poses an immediate risk to wildlife and to people, including those serving on the frontlines to protect wildlife" says John Scanlon, secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). "It increasingly involves organised crime syndicates and in some cases rebel militia." [Source: Amelie Bottollier-Depois, AFP, March 9, 2013]

Every weakness is exploited by criminals determined to cash in on large animal reserves in some of the world's poorest, most unstable countries. "Wildlife crime has historically been known as a low-risk, high-profit crime," according to Ben Janse Van Rensburg a senior CITES official. Alarmingly, the groups are part of a web of global criminals involved in other illicit trades such as drug and human trafficking, he said.

Although the countries worst hit by the scourge of wildlife trafficking have shown willing to tackle the issue, they do so with limited means. But some countries have not even made the issue a serious crime "making conviction difficult", says Jorge Rios of the UN Office against Drugs and Crime (UNODC), urging political commitment to be "accompanied by resources at national and international level".

For poaching to be curbed those resources must be targeted at a the whole trafficking chain. "We cannot just focus on poachers... we also have to deal with middle men working in transit countries, and people distributing and selling the merchandise in market countries," Dan Ashe, director of the US Fish and Wildlife service told AFP. "We have to deal with people who are financing these operations."

But it is not an easy task, with corruption lubricating the movement of illicit wildlife -- often destined for Asia as delicacies or use in traditional medicines. "They (traffickers) have a lot of money... they are paying for the right to do whatever they want," says Steve Galster, executive director, of conservation group the Freeland Foundation. After several years of investigation his group accused Vixay Keosavang, an influential Laos national, of orchestrating a major trafficking network. Tigers, turtles, pangolins, snakes and monkeys from Africa arrived on the banks of the Mekong river in legitimate breeding farms used as a front to sell protected or poached species, he said, highlighting the "loopholes" of CITES that have failed to stop people like him flouting the law.

National Wildlife Property Repository and the Illegal Animal Trade in the United States

The National Wildlife Property Repository in Denver is the resting place for 1.5 million confiscated items connected with illegal animal trade in the U.S. Thomas Curwen wrote in Los Angeles Times: “Building No. 128 is made of cinder blocks and metal siding. The warehouse is nearly as long as a football field and half the width. The floor plan is simple: a walk-in freezer, rows of industrial shelving and a storage system that offers security and climate control for valuable and perishable items... Everything else is dead and lies on crowded shelves. [Source: Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2009]

“There's a Hartmann's mountain zebra, its hide a rifle case -- the souvenir of a safari to southern Africa.There are the alligators whose skins adorn eight pairs of $2,000 Air Force 1s, the scheme of a hip-hop-inspired importer. There are the black bears whose gallbladder bile was extracted and crystallized, a futile cure for hangovers and hemorrhoids...In single cases, agents have confiscated 26,000 sea horses, 428 queen conch shells, 985 Saiga antelope horns, 272 bull shark jaws, 88 tree snail shells, 40 leopard skins, 100 monocled cobra snake vertebra bracelets, 175 mounted cobras, 15 urns made from chambered nautiluses. [Ibid]

“The National Wildlife Property Repository is the endpoint for all that is caught and confiscated by federal agencies in this country. Skinned, mounted, cut up and/or processed, the items arrive from U.S. Fish and Wildlife field offices around the country. Some deaths here defy imagining -- like that of the orangutan, whose skull, carved with decorative swirls and lightning bolts, is all that remains; or the caimans, standing on hind legs and holding silver trays like butlers; or the cheetah, with the frozen snarl and teardrop eyes. [Ibid]

“Spend time inside this ark and you confront one of mankind's deepest atavistic streaks, an instinct as old as fire. Here on shelves stuffed with pelts, piled with shoe boxes or crammed with bitter smelling medicines, is proof of an unstoppable obsession with capturing and owning the wild. There are pills and plasters for potency, coats and belts for allure, and novelty items for some social cachet. Each is a totem, an evolutionary holdover, from a time when we sought dominion over the world and magic from its creatures. But what once was a primitive painting on the wall in a cave is now a sophisticated and cruel industry that is slowly changing life on this planet. Here in a mere box or a plastic bag, you will find a flock of birds, a school of fish, a herd of mammals. [Ibid]

Consequences of the Pet Trade on Reptiles and Amphibians

Herpetologist Bryan Stuart told “The pet trade is not a small industry; it's a very large industry. And the keeping of amphibians and reptiles as pets is now a major industry. Fortunately, there are many species of amphibians and reptiles, especially reptiles, that have been bred in captivity for many, many generations, and are widely kept as popular pet. In fact, many of these snakes in particular, come in a wide variety of artificially produced color morphs, and so on. I think it's great when people are maintaining these captive-born animals as pets, provided they're responsible enough to not release them into the wild, in that they often will generate enthusiasm for people to learn about amphibians and reptiles, and enthusiasm about keeping these kinds of animals alive in the world rather than persecuting them - because snakes and other reptiles are heavily persecuted by people who misunderstand them. [Source: Laurel Neme,, December 21, 2011]

But, on the other hand, there are a lot of species in the pet trade that are not captive-bred but rather wild-caught animals. The trade in wild-caught animals for the pet trade is very, very large. I think some consumer awareness is badly needed. Often people will go down to a pet store and purchase a beautiful amphibian or reptile without considering its source. Oftentimes, those are rare species that were indeed wild caught, and by purchasing them as pets they're providing a motivation for more of that exploitation.

Endangered Birds and the Illegal Bird Trade

According to the official Red List by the World Conservation Union one in eight bird species is threatened. By some estimates at least on in ten bird species is likely to die out by the end of the 21st century, with another 15 percent hoovering on the brink of extinction. There are already some species that are raised in captivity but extinct in the wild..

In the last 500 years 135 species of bird have become extinct in the last 500 years, including, 8 in the 16th century, 11 in the 17th century, 26 in the 18th century, 49 in the 19th century and 43 in the 20th century.

Species have been lost due to poaching, habitat loss and overdevelopment. In the last three decades 21 species have been lost, including the Spixs macaw and the Hawaiian honeycreeper. Among the species that been saved through conservation efforts are the Bengal Florican in Cambodia, the Belding’s Yellowthroat in Mexico and the Restinga Antwren from Brazil.

Pet store birds generally have not had a very pleasant past. Some have been caught in the wild and subject to cramped cages and uncomfortable transportation. Many birds have been bred under stressful conditions.

In 2005, 1.5 million exotic birds as pets, 90 percent of the world’s total, were imported by Europe. In 2006, a ban that was put in place in Europe to halt the spread of bird flu also shut down the exotic bird trade, which was issued for all wild-caught birds.

The birds sold are only the tip of the iceberg of the damage that is caused. No one knows for sure but it estimated that as many as ten birds die being caught or transported for every one that survives to be sold on the illegal pet market. George Schaller told the New York Times Magazine: "Collectors are removing immature birds before they had time to breed. Demand from the pet trade stripped those jungles like a diseases. Who knows how many ways the loss of the birds will upset the balance of life in those jungles? But it will."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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