5 things you didn’t know about wildlife trafficking

tiger in India

Male tiger in India. The world has lost more than 90% of wild tigers in just over a century. (© Conservation International/photo by Frank Hawkins)

Wildlife trafficking ruins lives and threatens security and economies around the world.

The illicit trade in wildlife products is predicated on the deaths of defenseless iconic animal species, many of which face extinction as a result of this rapidly growing enterprise — and its effects are felt far and wide.

The scale of the problem has exploded in recent years, and policymakers are working to turn the tide before it’s too late. A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives would help clamp down on this illegal trade — and protect U.S. security in the process.

Here are a few things you probably didn’t know about wildlife trafficking.

1.     Wildlife trafficking poses a threat to international security.

The killing of African elephants for ivory is linked to organized crime, and many believe it is linked to the funding of terrorist networks. Areas controlled by militants and gangs are used as staging areas for smuggling illegal ivory, and the profits from poaching are used to fund weapons purchases. In 2012, Sudanese raiders, believed to be members of the notorious Janjaweed militia, killed an estimated 300 elephants in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), one of Africa’s oldest, most violent, and persistent armed militias, has been linked to elephant slaughters in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ivory trafficking is also believed to provide funding to Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group.

Wildlife trafficking is a global problem not limited to Africa. As the head of the Elephant Trade Information System told The New York Times, Asia is the source of much of the demand for trafficked wildlife goods — and home to many organized crime syndicates responsible for trafficking of wildlife from Africa and other regions.

Further reading

2.     The loss of iconic species is worse than you think.

It was a story as absurd as it was sad: In April, news outlets reported that an aging northern white rhino in Kenya had been placed under 24-hour armed guard in a last-gasp bid to save the species. In 1960, there were as many as 2,300 of these animals in the wild; there are now just five. Hunted for their horns — wrongly believed to have medicinal properties — many species of rhino are at dire risk of extinction.

Elephants also confront severe threats. The animal so closely identified with Africa is being slaughtered for its ivory at the pace of nearly 100 animals a day across the continent; according to a recent study, the population of forest elephants in central Africa fell by 62% between 2002 and 2011.

Tigers, meanwhile, are sought by poachers for nearly every part of their bodies, from their pelts to their teeth — even male tigers’ penises are considered to have medicinal value. The world has lost more than 90% of wild tigers in just over a century, a number that is likely to grow.

carved ivory about to be destroyed in Colorado

Carved ivory tusks about to be destroyed in Colorado. Many countries are burning ivory stockpiles in order to show solidarity with the global fight against illegal wildlife trafficking. (© Ivy Allen/USFWS)

3.     Protecting these animals in the wild is extraordinarily difficult.

Animals know no borders. Even if they did, the species hunted by poachers traverse some of the most remote and inaccessible habitats on Earth. Monitoring these areas is challenging in the best of circumstances — and much trafficking activity happens outside of wildlife areas, according to experts.

In the worst of circumstances, it is a deadly enterprise. The rangers who patrol Africa’s protected areas are up against heavily-armed poachers. Between July 2013 and July 2014, 56 rangers died on duty, with poachers and militia responsible for 29 of those deaths, according to the International Ranger Federation. Often equipped with little more than a rifle, a few bullets and a machete, rangers routinely square off against poachers carrying military-style equipment such as AK-47 rifles and night vision goggles.

4.     Wildlife trafficking is also killing local economies in Africa.

Poaching and trafficking of elephants and other species  threatens economic growth in African countries that depend heavily on wildlife tourism as a source of jobs and income: A 2014 briefing paper from the U.N. World Tourism Organization concluded that “the loss of wildlife caused by poaching is likely to significantly impact tourism development in Africa as well as the tourism sector worldwide linked to the African market.”

How bad is it? The loss to tourism of a single elephant over its lifetime is more than US$ 1.6 million, according to a recent report from the iworry campaign of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. These animals are truly worth more alive than dead.

policeman holds ivory tusk as Philippines destroys ivory stockpile

A policeman holds an elephant tusk as confiscated ivory from the Philippines stockpile is destroyed by an excavator in Manila in 2013. (ALEX HOFFORD / The International Fund for Animal Welfare)

5.     The U.S. is actually poised to do something about this — and you can help.

A  bill in the U.S. House of Representatives — H.R. 2494, the Global Anti-Poaching Act — seeks to support global anti-poaching efforts and to strengthen the capacity of partner countries to counter wildlife trafficking. The bill strengthens wildlife enforcement networks; enables the withholding of aid to countries that fail to adhere to international agreements on the illegal species trade; makes wildlife trafficking violations subject to money laundering and racketeering prosecutions; and authorizes provision of security assistance and equipment to help African countries fight wildlife poaching and trafficking.

What can you do? If you live in the U.S., call (202) 225-3121 or email your representative and urge him or her to support the bill and become a co-sponsor. (Look up your representative below.)

You can also get regular updates from Conservation International on these and other issues by signing up here.

Locate your Senators and Representative

ex: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC 20500

Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.


  1. Bill Trashman says

    As long as there are people willing to pay for animal parts, those animals will be under siege. The hunters would simply stop hunting them should the profits disappear. It’s truly sad for the tigers and elephants and it may not be long before we put them on the extinct list along the hundreds of others that are no more in recent decades.

  2. Lucy says

    Simply heartbreaking. I’ve been following animal conservation news for a while now (been reading more about elephants and tigers lately) and it just makes me so sad.

  3. mervyn walsh says

    Tigers are on the endangered species list. Between 2000 – 2010 alone, more than 480 cases of tiger smuggling were uncovered through analysis of the conservation agencies WWF & TRAFFIC. It is estimated that there are only 3000 to 4,200 tigers left in the World as remaining populations decline. Most of these animals live in India.

  4. Mona says

    I am so disgusted and angered by the devastating losses of all wildlife and, particularly, all of the endangered species. It is disgusting that they are threatened by poaching because of some people’s stupid, unjustified beliefs that their body parts serve any kind of medicinal purpose. And what is even worse is that Africa allows these rich, egotistical idiot hunters to kill these endangered species all in the name of greed and love of money. They should be ashamed of themselves and all should be locked up behind bars. It is an outrage that they allow this stupidity to continue. So sad that it won’t be long before our future generations will only be able to see these majestic animals in books. All because of GREEDY, MONEY HUNGRY MEN.

  5. Robert Siebert says

    Dear Assemblyman Royce:
    Please try very hard to get the power of our Congress behind the opposition to the slaughtering of wildlife, particularly in Africa.
    Thank you very much!

    Robert Siebert, Orange, cA.

  6. Christine &Franklin Sullivan /Heaney says

    This is a shocking and frightening situation escalating….Hope much can be done to stop this trade and brutality..Is nature and its animals not fascinating enough to observe, that people need to find thrill in killing…Some old tradition die hard, but they do need to disapear…hopefully replaced by curiosity and fascination and conservation..Photographic expeditions are available in tourism and is a lucrative source of income for the burgeoning world of people, threatening even its own existence, with its behaviour! So sad…

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  8. Mary says

    NOTHING will change until we get a new Congress with members that actually CARE about wildlife. Look how the GOTP party is always trying to gut our Endangered Species Act so they can take our US PUBLIC LANDS that the wildlife live on and give it away for free to cattle ranchers, mining, oil and gas and logging interests.
    I don’t think they give a damn if elephants, lions, tigers and any other species become extinct because they would disappoint their rich trophy hunting buddies.

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