Wildlife trade refers to the commerce of non-domesticated animals or plants, usually extracted from their natural environment or raised under controlled conditions, either as living or dead animals or their body parts.

Illegal wildlife trafficking is any environment-related crime that involves the illegal trade, smuggling, poaching, capture or collection of endangered species, protected wildlife (including animals and plants that are subject to harvest quotas and regulated by permits), derivatives or products thereof.

At the core of the illegal wildlife trafficking is a strong and rapidly expanding demand for a variety of products around the world: bushmeat; ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine; exotic pets; jewelry, trinkets, and accessories such as chess sets; furs for uses ranging from coats to traditional costumes; and trophies.

Wildlife trade is regulated by the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which currently has 170 member countries.

Illegal wildlife trade, however, is widespread and serious conservation problem, it has a negative effect on the viability of many wildlife populations and is one of the major threats to the survival of vertebrate species.

  1. Why should we care?

 There are many different estimates of the financial value of illicit wildlife trafficking worldwide, given the illegal nature of this trade. Unreported and unregulated fisheries trade alone are estimated at between US$4.2 billion and US$9.5 billion per year. Illegal timber trade is estimated as much as US$7 billion per year, and the illicit wildlife trafficking (excluding the previous two categoris) as between US$7.8 billion and US$10 billion per year.

Combining these numbers, all illicit wildlife trafficking comprises the fourth largest global illegal trade after narcotics, humans and counterfeit products.

In most cases, wildlife trafficking relies on the very same international criminal networks engaging in drugs and human trafficking, which diversify their income in this way. Traditionally, law enforcement has regarded illegal wildlife trade as a minor offence compared to weapons and drugs, thus allowing for a more reliable - yet sizeable - source of income for criminal syndicates.

Different forms of wildlife trade or use (hunting, trapping, collection, exploitation) represent the most immediate threat to endangered mammals, birds, amphibians and cycads.

Wildlife trade threatens the local ecosystem, and puts all species under additional pressure at a time when they are facing threats such as over-fishing, pollution, dredging, deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction.

Throughout Africa, elephant numbers have plummeted by 76 percent since 1980 due largely to the demand of elephant ivory with an estimated 35,000 slaughtered by poachers in 2012 alone. In 1980, we estimated there were 1.2 million African elephants. Today, there are less than 420,000. Recent data released by WCS on forest elephants shows that nearly 10 percent of the world population was killed by poachers in 2012 and again in 2013. At this rate they will go extinct within ten years.

A major challenge to halting the ivory trade is the lack of effective law enforcement controls along the trade chain from Africa, through the transit states, and to the end consumer markets. Legal domestic ivory markets are an enforcement challenge and provide cover for laundering of ivory from illegally killed elephants in Africa. Once ivory is within a country’s borders, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish legal from illegal ivory. As long as demand for ivory remains high and enforcement efforts are low, the legal trade will continue to serve as a front and criminal syndicates will continue to drive elephant poaching across Africa.

While the largest ivory consumer nation is China, the U.S. also has one of the largest markets globally. A recent report commissioned by NRDC found that up to 90 percent of ivory in Los Angeles and 80 percent in San Francisco is likely illegal.

  1. Impact on wildlife

 Every time a hunter traps a wild animal in the forest, it creates an interface between wildlife and people across which viruses or bacteria can pass. This effect multiplies as that animal moves along the market chain, changing hands through rural markets and often across international borders. Trade does not take place in isolation; it enables the transfer of pathogens between wild and domestic species, animals that normally would not be coming into contact.

It was these same processes that led to the emergence of new viral strains such as SARS coronavirus that emerged from the wet markets of Guangdong, involving bats and small carnivores, and ultimately lead to over 8,000 human cases in 37 countries worldwide and the death of almost 800 people. Similar processes have contributed to the emergence of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza, which has spread on an intercontinental scale, impacting food security, inducing billions of dollars of economic losses through control measures and disruption to agricultural trade, as well as the deaths of more than 300 people.

 Approximately 30 million people are currently living with and almost 2 million people die each year from HIV/AIDS in what is perhaps the largest epidemic of animal origin in human history, with the virus having originated in chimpanzees that were presumably hunted. Overall, over 70% of emerging zoonotic pathogens (i.e., pathogens from animals that affect humans) originate in wildlife populations.

Conditions in the wildlife trade disrupt the normal ecological and evolutionary equilibria of animals and the commensal and pathogenic organisms they carry. Moving wildlife along trade/import/export routes exposes animals to a broader geographic and taxonomic range of other animals as well as humans to whom they can transmit any pathogens they carry. Essentially this links together previously fragmented populations and enhances most pathogens’ ability to spread. Furthermore, as an influx of susceptible hosts is placed into contact with an infected animal being transported along a trade route, we risk a quite dangerous scenario wherein the most virulent pathogenic strains are the ones that are transmitted first, setting off local epidemics whose impact is higher than would be expected in that pathogen’s natural habitat.

Human livelihoods in rural areas across the tropic forest world are closely bound to hunting of wildlife for food and income. In rural Gabon, 60% of protein comes from wild meat. Ten indigenous groups in Latin America consume an average of 59.6 g of protein per person per day from wild meat, a figure well above the required protein levels for healthy subsistence. In Sarawak, Malaysia, wild meat is eaten in 29% of all meals of indigenous peoples, and 67% of all meals of the Kelabits there, and is their main source of protein. Across the tropics, many more peoples whose cultures are in transition from a subsistence to a market economy depend on hunting as a fall-back in times of hardship. Loss of wildlife along newly-created roads to distant markets means that a vital resource is lost.

Remote forest peoples who have few or no alternatives are driven even further into poverty. Over a ten year period, as their area became more opened up by roads and outside pressures, the proportion of successful hunts of the Agta people in the Philippines declined from 63% to 16%, and the number of kills per hunt declined by 86%. The Agta went from being hunters of abundant wildlife in primary forests, to being struggling foragers with inadequate wildlife resources. Attaining solutions that allow such people to hunt sustainably, while preventing the massive loss of wildlife resources to trade, is difficult, but essential if the resource is to be conserved, and rural livelihoods maintained.

  1. Impact on society

 People have been hunting wildlife for at least 10,000 years in Latin America, 40,000 years in Southeast Asia, and 100,000 years in Africa. What has changed?

First, human populations have increased – by an average of 300% in the past 50 years in countries across Southeast Asia, Central Africa, and Amazonia. Remaining wild areas have also become much more accessible, through improved river transport, railways, flights, and most especially roads, often built in the rush to extract timber, oil and other natural resources.

As soon as a road goes in, outside hunters and weapons also go in and wildlife flows cheaply and rapidly down to distant towns where it is either sold directly, or linked in to global markets through ships and planes. In Congo, wildlife densities declined by more than 25% in a single three week period after a forest was opened up by a logging company, and in areas of forest in Sarawak, Malaysia, which had been accessible by logging road for at least a year, no large mammals remained.

Hunting was once mainly for subsistence – most animals were hunted to feed the hunter and his family. But today, hunting has also become a global-scale, multi-billion dollar business, fueled by increased buying power among urban consumers around the world. And with globalization, trade chains have now extended well beyond the boundary of an animal’s country of origin, with ships and planes carrying wildlife to distant markets. Parrots from Cameroon and smoked monkey carcasses from Ghana are sold in New York and London, and turtles and pangolins from Indonesia are consumed in Hanoi and Guangzhou.

  1. WCS Response

WCS is working around the world to show that wildlife trade can be reduced successfully to levels where wildlife populations can be conserved, and the livelihoods of rural communities maintained. This requires commitment, dedicated personnel, funds, and political support at many different levels. Such efforts need to be expanded greatly if the world’s most spectacular animals are to be conserved for future generations in their homes in the forests and other wild places of the world.

In Africa, WCS is stopping the killing on the ground in 13 of Central and Eastern Africa's most important parks--those harboring the most elephants and facing the greatest threat--from Nouabalé-Ndoki in Congo to Ruaha in Tanzania and Niassa in Mozambique. WCS recruits, equips, trains, and deploys park guards, providing aerial and intelligence support, and tracking where guards go, what they see, and what they do.

In Africa and Asia, WCS is stopping ivory trafficking at some of the most important trafficking points--cities, border crossings, ports, and airports. WCS deploys sniffer dogs in Gabon and Tanzania, helping uncover trafficking networks in Congo and Mozambique.

Globally, WCS is working to stop consumer's demand for ivory, which drives the killing the killing and trafficking. In the US, WCS seeks national and state moratoria on ivory sales, and in Asia WCS assists concerned Chinese nationals who wish to educate fellow citizens through social media about the lethal cost of ivory to Africa's elephants. 

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