This module is a resource for lecturers


Key issues


Overview: The development of international law relating to wildlife trafficking

The international legal framework addresses wildlife trafficking in a rather fragmentary manner. No single instrument contains specific measures aimed at the prevention and suppression of wildlife trafficking (Elliott, 2017; Slobodan, October 2014). Instead, international obligations and principles relevant to wildlife trafficking come from several areas of international law, including international trade, environmental protection and conservation, organized crime and corruption, and the emerging area of animal welfare. The role of each of these areas of law in addressing wildlife trafficking has evolved over time, beginning with an initial focus on conservation in the first half of the 20 th century.

In 1948, global concern over nature conservation led to the establishment of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). IUCN was the world's first international conservation organization, focusing on the impact of human activities on nature and protection of species and habitats. While not a source of international law per se, IUCN plays a fundamental role in species protection, most notably through its Red List of Threatened Species. Created in 1964, the Red List assesses species and identifies those in need of protection. IUCN has also been fundamental in developing new international treaties and contributes to their continued operation.

Following the establishment of IUCN, the international community developed further treaties focused on environmental protection and conservation, three of which are relevant to wildlife trafficking. The first of these was the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage , adopted in 1972. The Convention originated from an idea from the United States to develop a World Heritage Trust, and from a similar proposal from IUCN in 1968. It aims to protect and preserve cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value. Other treaties concerning conservation and the environment followed, including the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals in 1983, which aims to protect migratory species and places obligations on States Parties to, among other things, conserve their habitats and prevent their taking. In 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity was opened for signature, with the aim of conserving biological diversity through sustainable use of its components and fair, equitable sharing of the benefits from use of genetic resources. The Convention on Biological Diversity covers all ecosystems, species, and genetic resources. Norms around environmental protection and conservation are widely accepted, with the World Heritage Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity two of the most widely accepted treaties worldwide, with 193 and 196 States Parties respectively.

States have long recognized the nexus between conservation and international trade in endangered species. Early attempts at developing rules on such trade, such as the 1933 London Convention Relative to the Preservation of Fauna and Flora in their Natural State, were, however, of little effect. This was partly due to insufficient ratification and implementation by States, as well as disrupting political events including the two World Wars (Sand, 1997). Nonetheless, impetus to regulate international trade gathered renewed momentum in the 1960s, in the context of increasing awareness of environmental issues, over-exploitation of wildlife through trade, and the need for conservation and sustainable use. At the time, the Unites States' Government was seeking 'a binding international convention on the conservation of endangered species' (Public Law No. 91-135 (1969), s 5(a), (b)). In 1963, the General Assembly of IUCN called for an international instrument on trade in animals. Following a first draft text in 1964 and protracted negotiations, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) entered into force in 1975.

The Convention was hailed by some commentators as the 'Magna Carta for Wildlife' (Sand, 1997). The Convention regulates international trade in wild flora and fauna and provides a framework through which trade in animal and plant species can be undertaken in a way that does not threaten their survival. Importantly, CITES also mandates suppression and punishment of trade that occurs in violation of its provisions (Article VIII(1)). As a result, CITES plays a significant role in international action against wildlife trafficking and strongly influences related domestic laws and enforcement (UNODC, 2016). Nonetheless, CITES' limitations in addressing wildlife trafficking have long been acknowledged, principally due to the fact it is restricted to international (and not domestic) trade and to the plants and animals listed in its appendices.

Despite significant developments in international norms around environmental protection, conservation, and international trade, until the 21 st century international law lacked frameworks addressing the criminal aspects of wildlife trafficking. This changed in the year 2000 with the adoption of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime ( UNTOC), which entered into force in 2003. While UNTOC does not address wildlife trafficking expressly, many of its articles on cooperation, jurisdiction, and ancillary crimes (such as obstruction of justice and participation in organized criminal groups) can be applied to this crime-type should they reach the necessary threshold defined in the Convention. (For an analysis of this topic, also see the UNODC Teaching Module Series on Organized Crime). UNTOC was followed by the United Nations Convention against Corruption ( UNCAC), which entered into force in 2005. UNCAC promotes the prevention and criminalization of corruption and includes articles setting out, inter alia, criminal measures, asset recovery, and international cooperation (for more information, see the UNODC Teaching Module Series on Anti-Corruption and on Organized Crime).

As a result of the developments explained above, the international legal framework now comprises rules on environmental protection and conservation, international trade, and organized crime and corruption, each of which is relevant to combating wildlife trafficking. Nonetheless, one further area where international rules have yet to substantially develop is animal welfare, where there is no specific international instrument creating obligations on States. As a crime type, wildlife trafficking commonly entails violations of animal welfare principles. These principles require the protection of animals from harm (in this case, by traffickers) and focus on the treatment and protection of individual animals. While some principles relevant to animal welfare are set out in non-binding instruments, such as the Universal Declaration for Animal Welfare (see Global Animal Law Project, 2011), or are addressed through the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), this remains a nascent area of law.

In summary, it is important to note that, while norms relevant to addressing wildlife trafficking have accumulated since the 1960s, the crime type itself has long been overlooked or dealt with as a peripheral problem by the international community and national governments. None of the frameworks outlined above specifically combat wildlife trafficking. Nonetheless, the topic is receiving increasing attention and recognition nationally and internationally. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly has passed several resolutions on trafficking in wildlife, expressing serious concern over poaching and the illegal trade in endangered animal species and emphasizing their adverse economic, social, and environmental impacts (see, for example, UN General Assembly, 28 September 2017). Furthermore, the administrative bodies of the treaties discussed in this Module, together with international organizations including IUCN and INTERPOL, have increasingly placed wildlife trafficking on their agendas.


The sub-pages to this section provide a descriptive overview of the key issues for lecturers to cover with their students when teaching on this topic:

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