Frequently Asked Questions

In March 2017, Global Financial Integrity published a report, authored by Channing May, entitled “Transnational Crime and the Developing World”. The analysis and author’s summaries of a wide variety of references has mostly been used to answer below the questions most frequently asked about the Illegal Wildlife Trade.

What is meant by the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT)?

IWT refers to crimes involving live wildlife, wildlife products, or their derivatives, of both flora and fauna. While ivory and rhino horn dominate the headlines, the illegal wildlife trade is much more complex, involving a multitude of species and a variety of markets and drivers.

Why should we be concerned about the Illegal Wildlife Trade?

IWT threatens the survival of species, damages ecosystems, undermines good governance and the rule of law, threatens security, and reduces current and future revenue from economic activities such as wildlife‐based tourism and sustainable utilization.

The economic loss to a developing country can be significant. While one elephant may yield up to $21,000 in ivory, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust estimates that the same elephant would generate $1.6 million in tourism over its lifetime.

What is the value of the Illegal Wildlife Trade?

IWT estimates place the annual retail value of the illegal wildlife trade between $5 billion and $23 billion. Per kilo, the retail revenues for ivory or rhino horn can be equal to or greater than the equivalent amount of cocaine or heroin.

What are the products of the Illegal Wildlife Trade used for?


Some species are hunted solely for subsistence (i.e., bushmeat), whereas others are hunted because their meat is considered a delicacy.

Bushmeat examples: elephants, primates, spotted deer, turtles

Delicacy examples: shark fins, sturgeon (caviar), pangolin, tiger bone (wine), glass eel, abalone

Traditional Medicine

This is wildlife, their parts, and products which are sought due to assumed healing properties.

Examples: rhino horn, totoaba fish bladder, bear bile, tiger bone, pangolin scales, ginseng, seahorses

Fashion and Décor

Skins, pelts, and furs that are desired for fashion items such as purses, shoes, and coats, as well as exotic woods used for furniture or art.

Examples: skins of snakes and alligators, tortoise shell, tiger pelt, rosewood, ebony


Status Goods

Goods that serve as status symbols, which often have long-standing cultural significance, allowing the owner to display their wealth. With the recent growth in the middle and high-income classes in Asia, there are now many more individuals seeking to conspicuously display their status than there were ten years ago.

Examples: ivory, rhino horn, and the pelts, teeth, and claws of big cats and bears

Exotics Pets

Rare species and/or unusual wild species that are not commonly kept as pets.

Examples: boa constrictor, iguana, chameleon, frog, parrot, falcon, slow loris, chimpanzee, spider, scorpion, caracal

Currency – ‘arms for wildlife’

Ivory is a favoured bush currency of armed rebel and militia groups, most notably the Séléka (Central African Republic (CAR)), Janjaweed Militia (Sudan), and the Lord’s Resistance Army (CAR, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan), all of which are actively involved in poaching.

Certain species and products can have multiple purposes — for example, rhino horn is consumed both for its perceived medicinal properties as well as a status symbol; or they can be desired for separate uses such as pythons which are sought for either the exotic pet or the fashion trades.

Who is involved in the Illegal Wildlife Trade?

High prices and low enforcement risk have lured a legion of participants, from subsistence poachers to transnational criminal networks and armed rebel groups, eager to satisfy and profit from a growing demand.

The illegal wildlife trade relies on a sophisticated global supply chain. The planning, collection, and smuggling of large quantities of wildlife and wildlife products demonstrate a high degree of coordination that is indicative of well-funded organized crime groups. Criminal networks may finance the poaching (e.g., providing weapons or money for weapons) so as to fill orders, but typically they do not take part in the actual hunting. The active participation of these networks usually begins after the animal has been poached, when brokers and middlemen purchase and/or collect the goods, assemble caches, smuggle them to transit and exit points, and launder the money.

The international freight transport stage(s), be it by air, sea, or land, is one of the most important points in the illicit supply chain. Criminal networks often set up anonymous shell companies to consign and receive cargo. This masks the true (i.e., beneficial) ownership of the shipment allowing participants to act in secrecy and lowers the risk of detection by law enforcement. In regards to the actual shipments, large volume consignments of wildlife products are typically hidden among cover materials, often common bulk goods, such as cashews, soya, and timber. There have been instances where illegal wildlife products have been concealed in freight shipments of tyres that, as part of trade-based money laundering schemes, are being returned by consignees in African countries to China as “defective.”

Organised crime groups, with their established trafficking routes and sophisticated networks, have been able to coordinate large consignments of wildlife and wildlife products. The illegal wildlife trade often flows through the same corridors used for other types of trafficking, such as drugs, arms, and humans. Criminal organisations that control trafficking routes tax other smugglers for use of these routes; wildlife traffickers pay a fee and are able to use an established route, lowering the risk of detection and seizure, while drug traffickers gain extra income.

Is the Illegal Wildlife Trade being taken seriously?

The seriousness of wildlife trafficking was widely overlooked by most governments until the various armed groups and criminal organisations became increasingly involved in the trade. What was traditionally seen as a conservation issue has been transformed into a matter of national and international security.

In May 2016, the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted Resolution 2/14 on illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products promoting stronger national, regional, and international cooperation in combatting poaching, trafficking, and demand for illegally traded wildlife and wildlife products.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is currently providing over $130million to support the Global Wildlife Program (GWP), which involves investments in 19 range, transit, and destination countries in Africa and Asia to tackle the illegal wildlife trade.

Compiled by Felix Patton