What widely illegal powdered substance possesses a market value approaching US$100,000 per kilogram? A common guess would be cocaine. However, the answer is actually powdered rhino horn (cocaine, in comparison, has a wholesale price of US$52,000). The worldwide war on drugs has increased the visibility of the trade in controlled substances such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. At the same time, however, there is a growing trade in substances such as elephant ivory, tiger bones, and the aforementioned rhino horns. The United States estimates that that the worldwide trade in illegal animal products is somewhere between US$7 billion to US$10 billion each year. Criminal organizations often respond to the demand for rare animal parts and exotic pets. They are aided by the expansion of global transportation systems and rising incomes, which have increased demand for expensive animal products.

Obviously, the illegal wildlife trade has significant harmful effects on environments and ecosystems across the world. The actions of poachers and other criminal elements threaten endangered species and the overall biodiversity of some of the richest ecosystems on the planet. At the same time, the trade in wildlife also has severe effects on human security. For instance, the trafficking of live animal specimens risks the transmission of zoonotic diseases. Furthermore, the profits from wildlife trafficking are increasingly used by transnational criminal organizations and even terrorist groups to fund other actions that endanger global stability. It is the responsibility of all nations to combat the illegal wildlife trade. Harsher punishments must be included to dissuade people from participating in illegal poaching and animal trafficking. At the same time, states must provide economic alternatives to the wildlife trade for their citizens. This article will examine the illegal wildlife trade in two different regions: Latin America and Africa. It will reveal some of the specific risks that the criminal exploitation of wildlife brings to each region. Finally, this article will lay out some specific steps that governments should follow in order to safeguard their environmental and political security.

Latin America

Latin America has one of the richest ecosystems in the world, with incredible biodiversity. The South American continent is estimated to contain more than 40 percent of the planet’s biodiversity and a quarter of its forests. Specifically, the region’s wide and diverse environments possess 34 percent of known plant species and 27 percent of the world’s mammals. Numerous Latin American countries have taken steps to conserve their ecological resources; around one fifth of the region is set aside for conservation purposes.

However, rampant exploitation of wildlife threatens to hinder progress towards conservation and to disrupt the delicate balance of regional ecosystems. Rare birds, including toucans and various macaws, are caught and sold either as pets or as sources for colorful feathers. Numerous reptiles from the region are also prized for their skin, including crocodiles, snakes, and lizards. Many smaller reptiles and amphibians are also captured and sold as pets. In Colombia alone, upwards of 58,000 animals are seized by officials each year, only a small share of the total regional trade in wildlife. Stings in Brazil, Bolivia, and Colombia have netted thousands of captive animals.

The impacts on the environment are widespread. Various species of birds and reptiles are facing major threats to their existence, at least partially due to smuggling. Almost a third of parrot species in the Americas are facing extinction. Numerous amphibian species, including the well-known poison dart and tree frogs, face pressures from the pet trade. The loss of these species would have harmful effects upon the overall ecosystem and the environment’s ability to provide “ecosystem services” such as soil stability and water retention. The absence of key bird and reptile species will impact the density of flora in these ecosystems, which will in turn negatively affect soil drainage. As a result, nearby farmland will likely suffer from soil erosion. Furthermore, this exploitation of the environment threatens undiscovered plant and animal species with significant value; it is estimated that enough plants are being lost that the Earth loses one undiscovered major plant-based drug annually.

Consumers from all over the world, including Europe, North America, and East Asia, primarily drive demand for these rare animal products. However, locals who are eager to seize upon these economic opportunities primarily drive the Latin American trade in illicit animal products and wildlife. Indigenous populations, who often lack other substantive sources of income, are usually willing to help poachers and other middlemen to locate and capture rare species. Furthermore, some of the region’s many loggers, miners, and farmers may seek to supplement their incomes with animal sales. The incentives are large in a region where the average rural income is less than US $500 per month, and even lower for indigenous populations. An especially rare bird, snake, or fish might be worth more than a villager’s annual income. Certain macaw species may fetch prices upwards of US$90,000 on the black market.

At the same time, there are a number of criminal organizations that are involved in regional wildlife trafficking. Some of the region’s drug cartels have started to expand their strategy to include wildlife smuggling. In Colombia, caimans are harvested from the wild and used to increase the supply of caiman skins, which are often used in luxury goods. Certain Mexican cartels have been suspected of attempting to smuggle totoaba fish out of the country to East Asian markets, where their livers are a major delicacy and can command prices of up to US$14,000 apiece. Cartels and other regional criminal organizations have also found their own uses for trafficked wildlife. Indeed, many notorious cartel leaders have personally owned various rare animals. The head of Mexico’s Los Zetas cartel owned two lions and a tiger, and was rumored to feed them the bodies of dead rivals.

The implications for regional stability are clear. Many Latin American criminal organizations primarily generate revenue through drug sales, a fact that is almost certain to remain true. However, the trade in wildlife and animal products may facilitate the spread of other illicit substances, including drugs and weapons. Animal shipments are often used to conceal drugs and to thwart customs officials. Packets of cocaine are hidden in packages of animal products and sometimes even inserted into still-living specimens. Most animals do not survive the journey. Furthermore, wildlife products can be used to barter for drugs and enable difficult-to-trace transactions. By assisting the trade in illicit drugs, the Latin American wildlife trade exacerbates crime and instability throughout the region. Cartels and other criminal organizations are not afraid to use animals for their goals as the region’s rich ecosystems suffer.


When one thinks of poachers, it is common to associate them with Africa. The continent boasts a diverse ecosystem, which includes many unique birds, reptiles, and big game. As a result, much of the continent’s wildlife is coveted across the world. Most famously, Africa is a major supplier of illegal elephant ivory as well as rhino horns. Various organizations have gotten involved in the ivory trade, where tusks can sell for several thousand US dollars per kilogram. Rhino horns are also heavily demanded in Asian markets for their supposed medicinal values, as well as for their use in traditional daggers and other luxury items.

Often aided by poor rule of law, poaching in African countries has reached incredible levels. In 2012, over 450 elephants were discovered dead in a national park in Cameroon, most likely hunted by poachers from neighboring Chad and Sudan. Those 450 elephants are a small subset of the more than 100,000 elephants hunted and killed by poachers in the past four years, which represent an over 60 percent decrease in the elephant population in Central Africa. Rhinos have not fared much better, as the number of rhino deaths is projected to surpass the number of new births by 2016. In South Africa, rhino poaching rates have tripled in the past five years.

While poaching might appear to be an excellent short-term source of income for rural citizens, its long run impact on growth is quite troubling. Tourism plays a major role in the economies of many African countries. The African tourism industry is estimated to provide up to 20 million jobs and to generate US$170 billion in revenue annually. Much of this tourism is motivated by Africa’s rich wildlife. Poaching, by threatening some of Africa’s most recognizable and beloved animals, will likely negatively impact the tourism industry. In particular, rural populations without many other economic prospects will suffer from a lack of wildlife tourism opportunities. By hunting illegally, poachers may be killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs.

Poaching activities do not merely endanger animals; the gangs of heavily armed hunters have often clashed with park rangers and local communities. Organized groups of poachers are often able to evade patrols and hunt undetected. When confronted, the poachers tend to be better armed and better funded. As a result, over 1,000 park rangers have died as a result of confrontations with poachers in the past decade. Rangers are often hamstrung by burdensome regulations and rules of engagement that limit their ability to fight back. Furthermore, the large, often-porous borders between many African countries make it easy for poachers to evade capture. This increase in crime threatens the economic and social stability of a number of African countries. Furthermore, poaching activities strengthen rebel and terrorist groups throughout the continent. A variety of regional terrorist groups use wildlife trafficking and poaching as a source of revenue, including the Sudanese militias and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. There have been some reports that major terrorist groups including Boko Haram in West Africa and al Shabaab in East Africa are also involved in the wildlife trade. These groups, aided by poachers, threaten to destabilize the continent and to exacerbate regional violence and poverty. Some African countries have started to cooperate to address the problem; for example, South Africa and Mozambique have sought to create a “hot pursuit strategy” that will allow South African rangers to operate across the Mozambique border. However, regional law enforcement organizations have a long way to go in order to prevent widespread poaching.

Africa’s wildlife trade also presents some substantial public health risks. Experts have noted that increased traffic in animals will raise the risk of zoonotic disease transmission. Diseases such as Ebola, which is often carried by bats and other primates, come to mind. It is hypothesized that HIV is linked to the consumption of primate meat and that respiratory viruses may be found in smaller animals, such as civet cats. Demand for bush meat and other raw animal products will increase the risk that populations will come into contact with infectious diseases. Trafficking bypasses ordinary customs screening procedures, making it likely that infected animals will not be detected and quarantined. It is clear that the illegal wildlife trade, in Africa and elsewhere, will likely increase humanity’s exposure to animalborne and potentially lethal diseases.

Steps For the Future

So what can governments do to stem the flow of illegal animal products? A proper solution must address multiple components that deal with law enforcement and customs coordination in addition to policies that decrease both the supply and demand for wildlife goods. Most international and national law enforcement organizations have primarily focused on other types of transnational crime, such as the drug trade. However, agencies must recognize that the wildlife trade is a major contributor to regional crime and instability and a problem that exacerbates many other crimes, including drug smuggling and money laundering. More focus by international organizations such as the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) would help bring attention to environmental crimes and would enable more information sharing between national governments. At the same time, law enforcement agencies at the national level should double down in their efforts to prevent the illegal capture and sale of at-risk species within their borders. Agreements such as the South Africa-Mozambique “hot pursuit strategy” are examples of innovative and cooperative solutions to law enforcement issues.

The United States has taken some steps to combat wildlife trafficking. President Barack Obama has signed an executive order to create a “broad based approach” to wildlife trafficking that will involve numerous US agencies. Furthermore, Obama pledged US$10 million to support capacity building for law enforcement agencies in Africa in order to allow them to better respond to wildlife trafficking. While this is an admirable start, this funding is only a drop in the ocean. As an article from Time Magazine notes, this funding is equal to less than a thousandth of the value of the illicit wildlife trade. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of State, and Department of Homeland Security all have important roles to play to prevent trafficking both at home and abroad. In Europe, which is a major transit point for wildlife shipments from Africa to Asia, the European Union has strengthened rules regarding the trade in wildlife. However, individual member states should take a strong role in securing their borders from illicit flows of wildlife products. Coordination through multilateral law enforcement organizations such as Interpol and the European Police Office (Europol) will be necessary in order to maintain consistent and effective screening and interdiction policies.

While better law enforcement and customs coordination may slow the trade in wildlife, it is crucial to develop policies that will better deal with the ultimate causes of trafficking. As the “war on drugs” has demonstrated, a pure focus on interdiction will not work; rather, targeted policies should be directed towards providing economic alternatives to the wildlife trade and reducing the supply and demand for illegal animal products. In Latin America and Africa, it is common for rural citizens to get involved with poaching or illegal harvesting because of perceived economic benefits. Regional countries should increase their educational campaigns to stress the economic and environmental dangers of the illegal wildlife trade. The United Nations Environment Programme has collaborated with a number of other multilateral organizations, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the UN Development Programme, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to raise attention towards animal trafficking. This collaboration could be expanded to include regional organizations and individual countries. At the same time, states should endeavor to support economic development in these regions that is both pro-poor and pro-environment. Setting aside conservation areas for ecotourism and allowing nearby communities to share in the revenues is an innovative model that has found success in Kenya and Uganda. As some early trials have demonstrated, these policies create incentives to stop poaching, and give much-needed revenue to some of the poorest parts of Africa. The scope of similar efforts should be expanded, as they provide a strong economic alternative to wildlife trafficking while enabling greater economic development. Similar policies could work in Latin America.

Steps should also be taken to reduce the demand for illicit animal products. East Asia is considered the primary destination for wildlife products. The United Nations estimates that the illegal trade in wildlife in East Asia and the Pacific reaches close to US$2.5 billion. Demand for many animal products is driven by cultural and culinary tastes, as well as by interest in traditional medicine. For example, bear bile, pangolin (a scaly anteater) meat, shark fin, rhino horn, and tiger bones all are either used in expensive dishes or pricey traditional remedies. Asian countries should raise awareness of the environmental consequences of demand for these products as well as dispel the notion that these traditional medicines have an impact on health. Furthermore, pressure should be placed on all countries that do not have adequate protections against the illegal trade in wildlife products. For instance, Thailand is facing sanctions for its unwillingness to halt its domestic trade in African elephant ivory. Such pressure will encourage states to cooperate to reduce the number of markets for wildlife trafficking.

The illegal wildlife trade is a criminal activity with impacts not only on the environment but on human well-being. Its effects on regional biodiversity and environmental stability are just the tip of the iceberg; wildlife trafficking also provides revenue to many transnational criminal and terrorist organizations and also increases the risk of infectious disease transmissions. Wildlife trafficking is a truly global crime, with global implications. Governments around the world must take steps to halt this trade for the good of humans and animals alike.