This module is a resource for lecturers


Demand and consumption


Wildlife trafficking is, for the most part, driven by demand. It involves animal parts, products, and derivatives, as well as trees, plants, timber, and plant products that are sought for a range of diverse purposes. To understand the illicit market for wildlife, animal parts, and plants it is necessary to explore what is driving the demand. Types of demand and levels of consumption change over time, sometimes rapidly, as uses and commodities come in and out of fashion. Much of the demand involves luxury goods such that consumption is driven by choice rather than necessity. The following section outlines the consumption and use of living animals, animal parts and derivatives, trees and timber, plants and plant products insofar as it impacts on endangered species or involves illegal use.

Medicinal use and healthcare

The use of animal parts, plants, or compounds extracted from them is commonplace around the world, ranging from herbal remedies to ingredients of industrial pharmaceuticals. Traditional medicines, upon which about 80 per cent of the world population relies for primary healthcare, frequently involve components derived from wild animal or plant species. It is estimated that 95 per cent of traditional medicines are based on plant material (Broad et al, 2012). Animals and animal parts used for medicinal purposes range from medicinal leeches (used to increase blood circulation and break up blood clots) to the gall bladders of pythons (the bile of which is used to treat ailments such as whooping cough, rheumatic pain, high fever, infantile convulsion, hemiplegia, haemorrhoids, gum bleeding, and skin infections) (Broad et al, 2012).

Many tonics and supplements include derivatives from wild animals or plants. Consumption of such products is often based on the belief that they may confer some qualities of the animal or plant from which they come. The use of such products is, however, not limited to persons sharing this belief; the use of wild animals and plants is deeply enshrined in traditional medicine, which makes it all the more challenging to change consumer behaviour, even if endangered species or commodities acquired illegally are involved. Captive breeding or plantation alternatives, if available, are regarded by many consumers as inferior and less efficient than products based on wild-sourced material. Because of their presumed healing effect, the same animal and plant species used in the production of medicine, tonics, and supplements are also often consumed for food (UNODC, 2016).

Example: Tiger bone

The pharmaceutical value of tiger bone, particularly in China, Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam, has been described in medicinal texts for centuries for treatment of rheumatism and a variety of other ailments of the muscles and bones. Tiger bones are also used to make wine, which, depending on the location, is marketed as both a tonic and a virility product.

Traditionally, tiger bone is soaked, then fried, ground to powder, and later mixed with other ingredients in prescribed combinations by pharmacists and doctors. Since the second half of the 20th century, as part of a wider modernization of traditional medicine manufacture, factory production techniques are increasingly employed to make medicines containing tiger bone in the form of pills, plasters, gels, and wine. By the early 1990s, in China alone, there were more than 200 companies involved in production of tiger bone medicines. The growth of this sector was one of the main drivers of the high volume of use in this period, estimated to range between 1,000 and 3,000 kg per year.

In addition to the medical use of bones, traditional beliefs throughout Asia have attributed health benefits to the consumption of almost every other part of tigers: from penis (often fake) sold to assist sexual virility, to teeth, hair, skin pieces, fat, and eyeballs used to treat a wide variety of ailments, there is a rich and diverse tradition of use of tiger parts and products.

(Broad & Damania, April 2010)

Example: Bear bile

Bear bile, a digestive fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, has been used in medicine for centuries. Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), the active ingredient in bear bile, is a recognized drug in both western and traditional Chinese medicine and continues to be recommended for the treatment of primary biliary cirrhosis, an autoimmune liver disease. Although synthetic forms of UDCA, herbal and other animal substitutes are available, wild bear bile is still preferred by some consumers. Five bear species are typically targeted for the bile trade: Asiatic black bears, brown bears, sun bears, American black bears, and sloth bears. The Asiatic black bear and the brown bear appear to be preferred, possibly due to higher UDCA levels, but the American black bear is also considered a good source of bile.

(UNODC, 2016)

Example: Rhinoceros horn

Rhinoceros (rhino) horn has historically been used in traditional medicine in Asia to reduce fevers, rheumatism, gout, infections and similar illnesses. More recently, the belief that rhino horn can treat other ailments, from the effects of excessive alcohol consumption to cancer, appears to have increased demand. Several reports further show that rhino horn is frequently used in Viet Nam to enhance sexual performance, as a cure for impotence, as a gift, and in so-called 'face consumption' practices (that is 'acts of conspicuous consumption in order to enhance, maintain or save face'), including as a 'party drug'. In any case, the prices that are charged for rhino horn, usually cited in the tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram, are disproportionate to any medical utility it might have. Because of the high prices paid for medicinal products containing rhino horn, horns are often bought from antique shops and then ground up and used in the production of medicine.

(Ayling, 2015; Crosta et al, 2017)

Example: Pangolin

Pangolins, sometimes referred to as 'the most trafficked mammal', are sought for a range of purposes in some parts of Africa and Asia. The pangolin is a medium sized, nocturnal, and elusive mammal that is covered in scales (it is otherwise known as a 'scaly anteater'. Its various body parts, especially their scales, but also its foetuses, blood, bones and claws are believed to have healing properties in traditional medicines. Although pangolin scales are composed of keratin, the same protein present in human fingernails and hair, they are used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of coronary heart disease, myocardial infarction (heart attack), angina, stroke, coma, cerebral vascular disease, fever-induced delirium and shock, infectious disease, and cancer. Prices for pangolin scales in China have increased tenfold in the last decade and the demand from China is believed to be driving much of the global trade. Their meat is also considered a delicacy in restaurants, where its consumption is also a symbol of status. Largely due to the ongoing trade, the once widespread mammal has been driven to the edge of extinction in Asia. All pangolins are particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction, high poaching rates and overexploitation as they have a very slow reproduction rate, with female pangolins usually only bearing one offspring per year.

(Heinrich et al, 2016; Vallianos, 2016)


Many people around the world rely on wild-sourced animals and plants for food. Food consumption of wild animals covers a great range of species ranging from primates such as chimpanzees, orang-utans, and red colobus monkeys, to insects, wild herbivores and cats, and reptiles, such as snakes, crocodiles and tortoises.

In some places, wild-sourced animals feature as elements of staple diets, especially if their meat serves as a protein supply because alternatives are not available or not affordable. Traditional cooking, especially in rural areas, often uses products sourced from the wild. This may involve use of the entire animal, with meat being used for food and other parts used for medicinal purposes. The use of wildlife as food and as medicine is closely related, not least because of the persistent belief that consumption of wild products is beneficial for health.

Elsewhere, the use of wild-sourced animals and plants in cooking is not a result of necessity, but rather a reflection of status or 'fashion trends' in food consumption. This is the case, for instance, with bushmeat consumption in urban areas as recent studies from Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) and the Democratic Republic of Congo show (Chausson et al, 2019; Gluszek et al, April 2018). Even if captive-bred alternatives are readily available, some consumers prefer to buy wild-sourced products. The meat of endangered, wild-sourced animals also sometimes features as novelty food on restaurant menus, often as luxury dishes sold for high prices. There are very few popular foods, either animal or plant, that cannot be cultivated. Even rather exotic meats are commercially farmed to meet niche demand. However, wild-sourced foods may be valued precisely because they come from the wild (UNODC, 2016; Phillips, 2015).

Food consumption is also a main driver for the use of illegal fishing methods, fishing in protected areas, and over-fishing. Many sea creatures are threatened not because they are target species, but because they are bycatch.

Example: Bycatch - the vaquita porpoise

The vaquita porpoise, which can be found in Gulf of California, is the world's most endangered cetacean (marine mammal). It frequently gets caught in fish nets used to catch another endangered species, the Totoaba macodnali fish, which is also endemic in the Gulf of California. Totoaba bladder is a delicacy in Asia, and is also used in traditional medicines, and it is trafficked from Mexico through the Unites States to China and other destinations.

(d'Agrosa et al, 2000; Jaramillo-Legoretta et al, 2007)

Example: Tiger meat

The use of tiger meat is less common today than it once was but reports of tiger meat in the restaurant trade in East and Southeast Asia surface from time to time. As with other aspects of wild meat use in Asia, there is a connection with health/tonic attributes. The primary reason for consumption of such a rare species as meat appears to be based upon prestige and status, with full knowledge of both the illegality of and conservation impact of consumption. As a result, consumers are unlikely to be dissuaded by awareness raising. Like some other market segments, deception is often an element of this trade. Other meat may falsely be sold as tiger meat to charge higher prices. Similarly, sellers may claim that meat originates from farmed animals when in fact it was sourced from the wild (or vice versa).

(Broad & Damania, April 2010)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

Example: Vanuatu, flying foxes

While the Pacific flying fox is not threatened, smaller, endangered species such as the banks flying fox, the Fijian blossom bat, the Vanuatu flying fox, and the Fijian mastiff bat are sometimes deliberately or mistakenly hunted for food. Flying foxes are Vanuatu’s only native land mammal; it is consumed in a national dish called ‘laplap’. It is eaten traditionally by locals, especially in villages where other sources of meat/animal protein is scarce, but also served stuffed with its own innards or in a red wine sauce to tourists in restaurants. These bats only roost and breed in a small number of caves, so a whole population can be at risk if hunting occurs at any one site.

(Vanuatu Environmental Science Society, 2017)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

Example: Palau, sharks

Shark fins are considered to be a delicacy in East Asia because of their texture and unique flavour. Shark fin soup has been consumed for centuries and in some countries the consumption signifies wealth and status. Due to greater demand and access to supply, consumption has increased since the 1980s.

Shark finning broadly involves catching a shark, removing its fins, and then disposing of the shark, dead or alive, at sea (Clarke et al, 2007). Usually the dorsal, pelvic, pectoral, and caudal fins are removed of the shark. Fins only constitute between 5 and 16 percent of a shark’s body mass, but they are the main reason why sharks are caught and killed (Dell’Apa et al, 2014; Clarke, 2015; Fields et al, 2017; Sadoyy de Micheson et al, 2018). Shark finning is lucrative for fishers, as it involves taking the most valuable part of a shark—their fins—and discarding the rest of the body, making transportation much easier. For this reason, finning is often practiced by fishers who operate smaller vessels or for whom sharks are merely by-catch when they mostly target other large fish, such as tuna. Many fishing vessels, however, specifically fish for sharks merely to obtain their fins (Clarke, 2007).

The trade in shark fin is not illegal per se, but different laws and regulations restrict the places in and the methods by which sharks are caught and certain restrictions apply to finning. In the international context, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, imposes restrictions on the international trade in some shark species. As of the CITES Conference of the Parties in 2022, 70% of shark species targeted for the fin trade are internationally protected (up from 25% before the conference) (Collyns 2022). In addition, several activities associated with the shark fin trade are illegal, for example, when sharks are finned in violation of prohibitions on finning, if illegally sourced fins are concealed in a consignment of legally sourced fins or among other species, or if species are traded without proper authorization and documentation by CITES authorities.

Illegal fishing and finning of sharks takes place in many parts of the Pacific. One example is Palau, where shark finning is banned but where alleged poachers from China, Viet Nam, and Taiwan are frequently seen fishing and catching sharks. Some crew of fishing vessels reportedly catch shark and keep the fin which they sell at port to supplement their income.

(Urbins, 2016)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

Example: Fiji, New Caledonia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands: sea cucumber (bêche de mer)

Sea cucumbers, echinoderms from the class Holothuroidea, are marine animals that feature in various cuisines on the Pacific Rim and also in Europe, where they are more commonly known by their French name bêche de mer. In many countries in East and Southeast Asia, sea cucumbers, which can be used in fresh or in dry form, are a highly priced delicacy, also because of their unique slippery texture. The high demand and high prices for sea cucumbers has led to overfishing and illegal fishing in many Pacific Islands, frequently carried out by large commercial fishing vessels registered mainly in East and Southeast Asia.

For instance, the captains and 48 crew members of three Vietnamese fishing vessels were arrested in Papua New Guinea in December 2016 for illegally harvesting 3,158 kg of sea cucumber. The investigation found a fourth vessel in the fleet had already been arrested in New Caledonia where they were previously illegally harvesting sea cucumber. The defendants pleaded guilty to all charges in court and were ordered to pay total fines of more than PGK 1 million, along with the destruction of the fishing vessels and forfeiture of all exhibits. Similarly, in Solomon Islands in March 2017, three Vietnamese fishing vessels and 43 fishermen were arrested for illegally harvesting sea cucumber, giant clams, and other marine resources. The three captains pleaded guilty to all charges and were sentenced to two years imprisonment, fines amounting to more than SBD 11 million, and forfeiture of the three vessels.

In Palau, the 28 crew members of a Chinese fishing vessel were detained in December 2020 after the vessel was intercepted harvesting over 200 kg of sea cucumber. Earlier that year, a court in Samoa heard that the animals can fetch up to USD 1,000 per kilogram in Asian markets. In August 2021, Samoan authorities detected an illegal sea cucumber operation after neighbours of the accused complained about the smell emanating from his house where he kept 150 kg of sea cucumber in fresh and dried form. In Fiji, a five-year ban on the harvesting, trade, and consumption of sea cucumber was in place from 2017 to 2022. However, illegal harvesting continued during this period and authorities made many seizures, such as 30 tonnes of dried sea cucumber that were seized in 2018 from a seafood processing facility.

(PNG National Fisheries Authority v Nguyen van Phuc, 2017; PNG Post Courier, 2017; R v Do Van Va, 2017; McBean, 2017; Vacala, 2018; Carreon and Agence France Presse, 2020; Radio New Zealand, 2020; Sanerivi, 2021; Samoa Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, 2021)

Cosmetics and fragrance

Derivatives from wild animals and plants sometimes form the basis of cosmetics and fragrances, though this is less common today than it once was. Musk, a greasy, glandular secretion from animals, and ambergris, a waxy substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales, for instance, were once used for perfumes but have since been replaced by synthetic alternatives.

Wild-sourced plants are still used widely in the cosmetics and fragrance industry, especially if cultivation is not practical or not cost-affective. Because wild plant populations are not well documented, it is difficult to determine whether the taking of plants is sustainable or whether it contributes to the extinction of species and the degradation of ecosystems. Increases in demand can lead to rapid overharvesting and when the species in question is slow to recover, as is the case with many tree species, and the impact can be severe (UNODC, 2016).

Example: Aquilaria

The overharvesting of aquilaria, a genus of tree species of the Thymelaeaceae family found in South and Southeast Asia, is attributed to the exploitation of a product sometimes referred to as 'oud'. Oud is the name given to a highly aromatic, resin impregnated wood found in a number of Thymelaeaceae species. The complex fragrance of this unusual resin has been used in fragrances and incense across a wide range of cultures for thousands of years and has also been ascribed medicinal and cosmetic benefits used in both Chinese and Ayurvedic therapies. Connoisseurs can differentiate between the scent profiles of oud wild-sourced in particular regions, and the quality of extracts is greatly dependent on the skill of the manufacturer. As particular regional stocks are harvested to extinction, there is evidence that speculative buying is taking place. The growing demand has led to both a looting of the wild material (as evinced in the seizure data) and the launch of many large-scale cultivation operations.

(UNODC, 2016)

Curios and collections

Exotic and rare animals, animal parts, and plants are frequently sold as souvenirs, collectables, and curios and then used for decoration or ornamental purposes. This sometimes involves whole animals that are stuffed or insects or small animals that are encased in plastic to put on display in private homes or collections. Many animal parts such as ivory, turtle and mollusc shells, reptile skins, bird feathers, and coral are frequently used for these purposes; often they are carved or otherwise altered for decorative purposes. The skin of many Asian big cats, including tigers, snow leopards, clouded leopards, leopards, and Asiatic lions are used as throws or for ornamental purposes. Their skins are also sold as rugs for luxury home décor and purchased as prestigious gifts. The rarer the species, the more such items may serve as status symbols. Tourists also frequently purchase souvenirs that are made from local wildlife and may thus, wittingly or unwittingly, acquire objects made from endangered species or from illegally wild-sourced animals or plants (Broad et al, 2012; UNODC, 2016).

Some wildlife products have attained such status and scarcity that their value has become detached from any practical uses they historically had. These materials may be fashioned into jewellery, décor items, or objects of art, with the craftsmanship serving as the vehicle for the precious goods to be conspicuously displayed. The products that lend themselves well to this role tend to combine two key factors: they are traditionally recognized as precious and their supply is inherently limited. In other words, they convey prestige precisely because attaining them legally is difficult (UNODC, 2016).

Example: Ivory and rhino horn

The primary example for a commodity of this kind is ivory, which has been recognized as a precious asset for a very long time and as a medium from which high art is made. With declining elephant populations and growing market restrictions, the exclusive status of ivory - and its value - has been enhanced.

Similarly, rhino horn appears to be conspicuously consumed as a status symbol. Recent surveys of markets indicate a growing demand for rhino horn jewellery and decorative items, including traditional libation bowls.

(UNODC, 2016)

Example: Helmeted hornbill

The Helmeted hornbill is a forest-dependent bird confined to the Sundaic lowlands of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam, and is regionally extinct in Singapore. Unlike other hornbills, its distinctive head 'casque' is solid and yields an 'ivory' desired for carving in China, where the casques of helmeted hornbill are valued by the same collectibles and investment market as elephant ivory.

(EIA, 25 March 2015)

Example: Tiger parts

A further dimension of trafficking in tiger parts involves teeth, claws, whiskers, clavicles (collar bones), and skin pieces as curios. Sometimes these items are sold as magic amulets and charms and sometimes simply as collector items or souvenirs. Tiger parts can be found on sale in Lao PDR, Thailand, and Viet Nam, but the place of greatest concern has been in Sumatra, Indonesia, where tiger teeth, claws and other parts are considered by some to provide good luck and protective powers. Though apparently declining under regulatory pressure, this market segment appears to have been the main recent demand driver for illegal killing of tigers in Sumatra.

(Broad & Damania, April 2010)

Fashion: clothing, shoes, handbags and other accessories

Animal skins and furs, bird feathers, and fibres have been used to make or decorate clothing for centuries. Their main use today is in the fashion industry where mammal, reptile, bird, and fish products are used to make coats, jackets, pants, footwear, bags, belts, purses, and other accessories.

Many companies have substituted wild-sourced material with material stemming from captive breeding farms or with fake, synthetic fabrics and material. Expensive, high fashion items, however, continue to be produced from wild-sourced animals, especially if captive breeding is not feasible or not cost effective and if consumers willing to pay high prices specifically demand genuine, wild-sourced material. Examples include shahtoosh shawls made from Tibetan antelope, an endangered species, and more widely available products such as snake-skin accessories (Broad et al, 2012).

The use of animal fur in the fashion industry has attracted particular controversy, not least because of the capture and treatment of animals and because of the use of endangered species in the production of fur clothing. Campaigns by animal rights activists succeeded in many countries to reduce demand and sales, and some countries banned farming of animals for the purpose of fur production altogether.

Elsewhere, hunting and other forms of wild-sourcing of pelts and skins remain a source of livelihoods for people in rural areas where the source species are abundant, including areas where hunting is enshrined as a right of indigenous people. Large exports of wild-sourced skins of protected species, including bobcat, river otter, brown fur seal, and peccary skins, as well as many finished garments made of these species, have been reported which reflects continuing high demand (UNODC, 2016).

The use of animals and animal products in industrially made clothing is all the more contentious because of the volatile nature of the fashion industry, which, by its very nature, is subject to trends and changes such that material that is fashionable in one season is out of fashion in the next season. Demand can thus change suddenly and rapidly, which can make farming of animals a risky economic proposition. Wild-sourcing, on the other hand, requires less investment and can thus involve fewer financial risks. When the target species are solitary animals, wild-sourcing is often carried out informally and opportunistically by rural people. When the collectors are not directly employed by the exporters, the vulnerability of supply chains to illegal sourcing is increased (UNODC, 2016).

Example: Reptile skin

The reptile skin trade provides a case in point. While the value of the trade in alligator and crocodile skins is large enough to sustain farming in wealthier countries, the trade in smaller reptile skins is less lucrative, making wild sourcing more attractive.

(UNODC, 2016)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

Example: Solomon Islands, dolphin teeth

On Malaita Island in Solomon Islands, dolphins are hunted for both their meat and teeth, with the latter used as traditional currency (e.g., for dowries) and for personal adornment. Several studies suggest that some 100,000 teeth are collected annually and that spotted dolphins (‘unubulu’ in the traditional language) and spinner dolphins (‘raa’) are the most targeted species because of their (preferred) small teeth. The dolphins are caught in drive hunts which are conducted from January to April. Fishers in canoes clap stones together beneath the water’s surface to drive dolphin schools near to shore or into the mangroves. It is estimated that some 1,000 to 2,000 dolphins are killed each year, often including calves. The hunting is lawful if traditional hunting methids are used; otherwise it is illegal. The value of dolphin teeth increased from USD 0.14 per tooth in 2004 to USD 0.70 in 2013; since dolphins have between 72 and 104 teeth, this increase provides villagers more incentive to hunt. In 2013, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Scientific Committee expressed concern regarding the potential depletion of local populations, given the scale of the recent (and historical) catches.

(Altherr and Hodgins, 2018)

Furniture and construction

Plants and plant material are widely used in the furniture, building, and construction industries. This is not limited to timber, but also includes rattan (made from climbing palms), bamboo, and plant products such as oils, gums, dyes, and latex (Broad et al, 2012).

Tropical hardwood is particularly valued by many consumers, although it may involve endangered tree species or come from tropical rainforests or other areas that are protected and have fragile ecosystems. About two thirds of tropical hardwood comes from Southeast Asia and the Pacific; Africa and Latin America contribute one third to the international trade. Most of the demand for furniture made from tropical hardwood comes from the countries where the timber is sourced; about one third of the tropical hardwood production is traded internationally.

Illegal and excessive logging poses a particular challenge to source countries, especially developing countries with large remote forest areas where logging activities are difficult to control, where forest loss is difficult to monitor, and where it is difficult to stop illegal activities. Some countries have imposed logging restrictions, placed specific species under protection, or imposed export bans on logs. Control and enforcement of such measures is, however, expensive and lacklustre in certain places. Furthermore, in some instances permits and certificates are forged and logs are mislabelled such that illegally sourced timber is laundered through regular, legal channels (UNODC, 2016).

Example: Rosewood

The use of rosewood (or hongmu 紅木) in China dates back some three thousand years. It is used for artwork and luxury furniture, particularly replica Ming and Qing dynasty pieces which are traded at high prices. Much of the timber is supplied from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Thailand, but also from African countries including Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, and Madagascar. The supply can have devastating effects on the rainforests of these source countries. The trade in several rosewood species is restricted under international law. Because rosewood is slow growing, illegal logging can easily result in an irreversible loss of rosewood forests.

(Ayling, 2015)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

Example: Vanuatu, green snails

The green snail (Turbo marmoratus) is the largest of the turban marine snails, weighing up to 3 kg per shell. Green snail shells were previously exported from Vanuatu to the Republic of Korea, Japan, and China for shell crafting, such as inlays on furniture as well as other décor (lamps, jewellery, etc.). A 15-year export ban was introduced from 2005 to 2020 due to the collapse of the green snail fishery, which was incorporated into the Fisheries Regulations 2009 (Vanuatu). Despite the ban, illegal harvesting and trade was reported as an ongoing concern, with fisheries officers confiscating more than 500 kg of shells at local markets.

(Kaltavara, 2015)

Pets and zoos

If living animals are trafficked, this is usually done for the pet trade, or, in some cases, to add them to private collections or zoos. Trafficking in living animals involves captive-bred and wild-sourced animals, some of which are protected species. Dedicated collectors frequently seek to obtain endangered species and are prepared to pay high prices for them, regardless of whether they are traded legally or illegally. The international trade of living wild-sourced animals for use as pets is dominated by reptiles, birds, and ornamental fish. It also includes invertebrate species such as scorpions and spiders, albeit less commonly (Broad et al, 2012; UNODC, 2016). The trade of living animals for use in zoos tends to involve a lower number of larger animals, often selected precisely because they are endangered and have become rare in the wild (UNODC, 2016).

The trade of tropical fish for aquaria and freshwater turtles and tortoises for terraria or other enclosures is believed to involve millions of individual animals each year. Just how much of this trade consists of animals sourced from the wild is not clear. While some consumers are willing to pay premium prices for wild-sourced animals, depending on the species, it can also be cheaper to source animals from the wild which, in turn, can stimulate further demand. Pet breeders may also seek to obtain wild-sourced animals in order to increase genetic diversity of breeding stock (UNODC, 2016).

A particular concern in the context of trafficking in living animals is animal welfare and the conditions under which animals are caught, trapped, transported, and kept. In order to maximize their catch and profits, some perpetrators employ methods that are exceptionally cruel to animals, that cause great stress to them, and that all too frequently kill off a significant share of live animal shipments (UNODC, 2016). Trafficking in living animals also extends to the collection, transportation, and sale of eggs which are often not adequately handled by those involved.

Example: parrots

One of the most commonly trafficked type of exotic pets are parrots. Habitat loss and trade have decimated parrot populations worldwide with the result that parrots are the most endangered bird species globally. Wildlife trade is thought to contribute to the fact that nearly 30 percent of the 355 species of parrots are currently threatened with extinction. The parrot species are commonly kept as pets include budgerigars, African grey parrots, macaws, and cockatoos. These birds are particularly valued for their vocalizations, cognitive abilities, and colourful appearance, and cockatoos for their erectile crest. Most come from the southern hemisphere, particularly the tropical regions in central and southern America and the subtropical regions of Australia. Parrot species are especially vulnerable to the dangers associated with improper handling and transportation. Data indicate that South Africa is the main buyer of wild-sourced African grey parrots from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a major international seller of captive-bred ones.

(Phillips, 2015; Tella & Hiralod, 2014)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

Example: Papua, pig-nosed turtles

The pig-nosed turtle (Carettochelys insculpta) is a freshwater turtle species native to north Australia and New Guiinea. Pig-nosed turtles are unique among freshwater turtles as the genus is monotypic with no recognised subspecies. The distribution in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Australia is disjointed and the full extent of its distribution is unclear.

The major threats to pig-nosed turtles include the international wildlife trade, collection of eggs and the turtles for local consumption within its native range, and destruction of habitat. Adult animals and their eggs are highly regarded as food by indigenous peoples, which is threatening populations in both Papua New Guinea and Indonesian Papua. The demand for pets in the international market may pose the greatest and most immediate threat. Illegal trade in pig-nosed turtles to supply international demand for pets, and to a lesser degree for meat and use in traditional medicines, occurs a large scale.

The interest in pig-nosed turtles has intensified over the years due to its taxonomic distinctiveness (only surviving species of a once widespread family of turtles) and increasing rarity, which, combined with new hunting methods and technologies, is leading to increasing and likely unsustainable harvest of the species. In Indonesian Papua, eggs are also collected for local incubation under controlled conditions for sale of hatchlings into the international pet trade; total numbers of eggs collected amounted to 1.5 to 2 million eggs annually in the late 1990s and have continued at unsustainable and growing rates into the present, despite being listed on CITES Appendix II.

While the species is protected throughout its range and all international trade is regulated, a substantial illicit trade persists. The species was first listed as ‘Insufficiently Known’ in the 1982 Red Data Book (a public record of endangered and rare species of animals, plats, and fungi), then uplisted to ‘Vulnerable’ on the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In 2017, the pig-nosed turtle was reassessed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List. The unsustainable exploitation for the international demand for pets, and for food, which if not urgently curtailed, could drive the species to a ‘Critically Endangered’ status.

(Burgess and Lilley, 2014; Shepherd, Gomez, and Nijman, 2020; Eisemberg et al, 2018; Tlozek, 2017)

Ornamental plants and gardens

Just as people purchase animals for use as pets, many plants are traded internationally for use in gardens, parks, and private homes. Most of the known, reported trade in live plants for ornamental purposes is in artificially propagated sources. Much of that trade involves bulbous species, for example snowdrops Galanthus spp, crocuses Crocus spp, cyclamens Cyclamen spp, orchids, tree ferns, bromeliads, cycads, palms, and cacti.

Most of the species commonly traded and available for purchase at flower markets, nurseries, or other common retail places come from plantations or greenhouses where they are grown in large quantities. Outside of this formal trade exists an illegal and unsustainable trade in wild plants, the scale and nature of which is largely unknown. Millions of plants are sourced from the wild and often involve rare and endangered species that are sought by particular consumers. A 2018 study reports that wild harvesting for the commercial horticultural trade has been formally documented in at least ten countries, and reported in several more (Hinsley, September 2018; Broad et al, 2012).

Example: Orchids

The ornamental orchid trade involves thousands of species that are traded between vendors and buyers all over the world. The trade can be divided into two types. The first is the legal, mass-market trade in a small number of varieties of inexpensive pot plants aimed at non-specialist buyers, usually involving hybrid plants. The second type is the specialist ornamental trade, which involves many more species and hybrids. The consumers in this market are specialist growers.

Whereas some specialists may be more likely to seek out wild plants deliberately, it is also possible that casual growers may purchase wild plants, often without realizing the implications. For example, the latter may buy illegally collected plants if they are for sale at a similar price to artificially propagated plants in street markets or online.

The online illegal trade of orchids takes place on multiple platforms, involving sellers and buyers from all over the world, many of whom are also involved in the legal trade. Although all international movement of orchid species is regulated by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), traffickers take advantage of the lack of monitoring of online sales, especially on social-media and e-commerce websites, to advertise wild-collected plants, some of which are rare or protected species. The complexity of the overlapping legal and illegal markets makes it particularly difficult to detect and monitor illicit sales, even though many illicit sales activities take place in the open.

(Hinsley, September 2018)

Science and medical testing

The use of animals in science and medical testing constitutes a further dimension of the illicit wildlife market (Maldonado & Lafon, 2017). A large part of this market has been attributed to the demand for primates for use in biomedical and pharmaceutical research. In the United States alone, the number of primates used in research and testing rose from 57,000 in 2000 to over 70,000 in 2010 (Miller-Spiegel, 2011). Most of these animals, over 80 percent, reportedly come from captive-breeding facilities, though other research suggests that most were wild-caught in 'tropical countries', especially in Southeast Asia (Eudey, 2008).


Wild animals traditionally play a significant role in many sports. Historically, this often included the competitive use of animals in activities such as bear baiting, bird batting, eel pulling, monkey fighting, and tortoise racing; 'sports' that have since been abandoned or outlawed, not least because of animal cruelty. Today, the use of wild animals in sports is much more limited than it once was. Falconry, for instance, now mostly involves captive-bred birds.

Much of the focus instead is on trophy hunting, which is the subject of much controversy and fiercely debated by opponents and advocates. Trophy hunting combines gamesmanship, leisure, and the excitement of using acquired skill. Its impact on endangered species is less clear. Supporters point out that trophy hunting is legal in many countries, promotes tourism, provides support for local communities who would otherwise find little value in their wildlife, and can contribute to conservation efforts (Wiersema, 2016; von Essen et al, 2014). Others, however, argue that it is a cruel pastime for wealthy elites and contributes to the demise of endangered species.

Regional perspective: Eastern and Southern Africa

Example: Death of Cecil the Lion

In 2015, the death of Cecil, a well-known black-maned lion that lived in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, resulted in an international outcry, following the revelation that Cecil had been killed outside the (protected) Park by a US citizen who reportedly paid over $50,000 to bow-hunt the lion as a trophy. Eight African countries, including Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe allow the export of lion parts.

The case attracted international attention and pictures of the hunter and his collaborators were circulated throughout social media and the rest of the internet. Details aggravating the public outcry were related to the hunter fitting the profile of the white, wealthy elite; that Cecil was part of a research project by Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit; and the assumption that Cecil had been lured outside the Park, where shooting him would have been illegal. Charges against the hunter and his collaborators were eventually dropped, after Zimbabwe initially urged to extradite the “foreign poacher”.

While the case spurred public discussions about trophy hunting in general, many incidents that endorsed violence against the hunter were recorded as well.

For a more detailed discussion on green violence, please refer to Module 3 of the Wildlife crime University Series.

(Bale, 2016 ; Actman, 2018)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

Example: Samoa, pigeon hunting

Pigeon hunting is a popular and long-standing pastime of the elite on the islands of Samoa. Originally using elaborate traps, hunting methods changed with the arrival of guns. Two species particularly affected are two native species: the Pacific pigeon (Ducula pacifica, locally known as lupe) and the critically endangered lanumea or tooth-billed pigeon (Didunculus strigiristris) which is endemic to Samoa. Despite a government ban on pigeon hunting imposed in 1998, many pigeons are hunted for wild meat consumption, leading to species decline and extinction. It is estimated that some 22,000 to 33,000 pigeons are hunted and consumed per year, primarily by the wealthiest people across the country. While many hunters pursue the Pacific pigeon, in about one third of all cases they kill the lanumea (which is said to be less appetizing). In 2015, it was estimated that only 250 lanumea remain in the wild.

(Stirneman et al, 2018; Collar, 2015)

Religion and cultural tradition, belief use

Wild-sourced animals and plans sometimes also find use in religious practices, some of which are deeply rooted in local beliefs and customs. Oud or agarwood, for instance, has a prominent role in religious observance, especially in Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions (UNODC, 2016). The use of jambiya, ceremonial daggers with a short, curved blade and a medial ridge, is a tradition among men in Yemen and some parts of Saudi Arabia. The handle or hint of the jambiya is a status symbol and made from highly valuable material which, in the past, frequently involved rhino horn or ivory from elephant or walrus. Effective campaigning over the past few decades has, however, shifted the demand away from such material (Felbab-Brown, 2017; Vigne & Martin, 2001).

Example: Asian big cat skin

Asian big cat skins, for instance, were widely used to decorate traditional Tibetan costumes, known as chupa. For a period, this use was seen as a major driving force behind the poaching of tigers, leopards, and otters for their skin in India and Nepal. Following an appeal from religious leaders, the use of Asian big cat skins for that particular purpose has declined significantly since 2006 - which also serves as an example of successful culturally-tailored demand reduction.

(UNODC, 2016)

Regional perspective: Pacific Islands

Examples: Papua New Guinea, birds-of-paradise and traditional costumes

The bird-of-paradise is the national emblem of Papua New Guinea (PNG). It is protected under CITES Appendix II and since Australian colonial times it is illegal to sell them. This prohibition does not account for traditional practice and in Goroka, in the highlands of PNG, dead birds-of-paradise reportedly sell for about AUD 40 each. The birds are often bought for use of their feathers in ceremonial costumes or for use in traditional dances when the bird’s feathers along with parrot feathers are used for dancers’ headdresses. For these reasons, the killing and trading of birds-of-paradise usually spikes around cultural shows or other traditional festivities. These traditions are an important part of PNG culture but put great pressure on the country’s wildlife as the population grows.

(Tlozek, 2017)

Fiji and Tonga, use of hardwood oil in traditional rituals

Santalum yasi, a sandalwood, is found in Fiji and Tonga. It is valued for the heartwood oil used in traditional rituals and ceremonies. The species was overexploited by the Europeans in the early 1800s. Wild populations have been heavily exploited and the problem is exacerbated by poor regeneration, slow growth rate and removal of seed trees from wild stands.

(Huish et al, 2015; Thomson, Bush, and Lesubula, 2020)

Fiji, use of timber in handicraft and traditional and cultural objects

Intsia bijuga (vesi), also known as Borneo teak, is often referred to as the most highly valued tree species in the Pacific Islands. It is commercially exploited for timber and handicrafts. It has high cultural value and was used for poles in bures (traditional huts), canoes, lali (traditional drums) and kava bowls. The tree species is very slow growing and is classified as ‘vulnerable’ to extinction on the IUCN Red List. The Kabara Island Project (by WWF) is working on species restoration.

(Areki and Cunnungham, 2010)

Fiji, tabua

Tabua is the polished tooth of a sperm whale and holds great cultural significance in Fijian society. Tabua are only permitted for trade for cultural purposes, pre-CITES convention, with a permit issued by the Fiji Ministry of iTaukei Affairs. There have been many reported cases of illegal tabua trade in Fiji, with data from the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs in 2022 indicating at least 130 tabuas had been confiscated. Fake tabua made from plastic are also in circulation and trade, with the Ministry seizing 40 fake tabua in one operation in 2015. Tabua have also been confiscated in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. In 2017, the Government of New Zealand returned 146 tabua to the Government of Fiji that had been seized at the border without the necessary CITES permits over a 15-year period.

(Boila, 2022; SPREP, 2017; Reece, 2019; Williams, 2015)
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