In contrast to markets on which there is a complete prohibition, the trade in wildlife involves goods that can be legal or illegal, depending on when, where, and how they were acquired, transferred, or sold. Many wild animals and plants are traded legally around the world, with no apparent threat to their long-term survival. The legal trade in wildlife is a significant global industry, generating revenue for many national economies, creating jobs and generating income for many people worldwide. The legal and illegal wildlife trade share many characteristics: '[T]raders adapt to changing circumstances. They target new species when others become depleted, shift to new markets, or in the illegal trade develop new trafficking methods and routes to avoid detection' (Broad et al, 2012, p. 4).
What characterizes many trafficked species is a level of demand that is unsustainable for the populations of the species, leading to critically endangered populations. As discussed earlier, demand may come from centuries-old traditional uses, but can also stem from newly advertised uses. In addition, demand for wild species is often the product of growing wealth, either because more people can afford expensive products or because it can become a form of lavish consumption. The level of demand for these species adds an important dimension to questions about the role of trade in their conservation (Wiersema, 2016). For the most endangered species threatened by trade, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), outlined in the previous section, serves as the mechanism to regulate that trade.
Some national laws, however, run contrary to the preservation of threatened species. Instead, they are pivotal to stimulating demand, providing loopholes for abuse and the laundering of illegal products (EIA, 25 March 2015).
In Lao PDR, although tigers, elephant, and rhinoceros are protected species under the Wildlife and Aquatic Law 2007, the same Act permits the possession and trade of second and subsequent generation captive species. This creates an opportunity for laundering illicit products whereby wild-sourced products may be mislabelled as products originating from captive-bred animals.
Lao PDR's Wildlife and Aquatic Law (2007) permits trade in bear bile, providing that commercial bear farms, or bears kept for household purposes, are registered with the Prime Minister's office and monitored by the Department of Forest Resource Management within the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (Article 62). Additionally, the Law permits trade only from second generation stock and therefore, in Lao PDR, bear farms cannot operate legally if the bears are of direct wild origin. Research published in 2014 and 2018, however, found that all commercial bear facilities were operating illegally by trading in wild caught bears. Indeed, no facility appeared capable of breeding bears. Additionally, one facility was reportedly transporting bears internationally between China and Viet Nam in violation of CITES.
Many reptiles are exported from Indonesia to the European Union (EU) under the auspices of paperwork claiming them to be captive-bred specimens. However, there are serious discrepancies between the numbers of reptiles exported to the EU that are declared as captive-bred, and the numbers of reptiles that purported breeding facilities in Indonesia are actually producing, or have the capacity to produce. These discrepancies suggest that reptile traders may be exporting wild-caught reptiles, along with the required paper work for captive-bred specimens, to the EU, under the guise of 'captive-bred'.
Pangolins fall under China's wildlife utilization scheme, and between 2008 and 2013 the Government of China issued quotas of over 108 tonnes of pangolin scales, ostensibly from legal stockpiles, to designated hospitals and manufacturers of medicine for clinical and medicinal use. China reported on this scheme in 2014 but only in reference to the scales of one pangolin species and without any detail of measures to prevent the laundering of scales from poached pangolins.
Several endangered New Caledonian animal species are highly sought-after and fetch high prices in the exotic pet trade, especially since they are not yet protected by CITES. Some reptiles, especially geckos, found in New Caledonia can be traded legally, while others cannot. Smuggling events of New Caledonian reptiles have been reported since the 1990s. While illegally sourced animals became the breeding stock for some species, for others illegal offtake continues.
A study by Sandra Altherr and Katharina Lameter published in 2020 provides insight into the illegal trade of reptiles from New Caledonia. The difficulties of separating legal from illegal trade and captive-bred animals from those taken from the wild is well illustrated in the case of a German trader who offered individuals of five endemic species for sale. This included the New Caledonian gecko (Mniarogekko jalu) and the mossy New Caledonian gecko (M. chahoua) from Ile Art, in Province Nord, and Kotomo, in Province Sud. His advertisement highlighted the rarity of specimens from Ile Kotomo as ‘Super rare. Maybe the only pair available worldwide.’ Nevertheless, he declared all animals to have been ‘captive-bred’. His advertisements also listed several other rare species. In 2014, the same German trader was arrested for reptile smuggling in Costa Rica, but he continued to regularly offer endemic and nationally protected species from all over the world.
The study further shows that the trade in geckos from New Caledonia also involves the symmetrical gecko (Eurydactylodes symmetricus) which is classified by IUCN as ‘Endangered’ and the western chameleon gecko (E. occidentalis) which is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’, due to its tiny area of occupancy of about 2.5 squarekilometres. Prices for such rare chameleon geckos may reach up to EUR 1 000 per individual. Offspring of wild-caught specimens of Gunther‘s New Caledonian gecko (Bavayia cyclura) and Sauvage‘s New Caledonian gecko (B. sauvagii) are also offered online for sale. The advertisements name locations in New Caledonia where thet geckos were allegedly sourced: the Nehou River in Province Nord and Mount Koghi in Province Sud, though in both Provinces collection of native species is prohibited. Accordingly, the breeding stock of those animals is likely of illegal origin. In January 2020, offspring of wild-caught specimens of sclerophyll bavayias (B. exsuccida) was presented in the Facebook group “New Caledonian Endemics” as “some of the first ever captive-bred specimens”. This species is endemic to and protected in Province Nord and is classified as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Nevertheless, the species has been repeatedly found in the European pet trade.