▼ Definitions and scope
According to CITES, wildlife crime refers to the "taking, trading (supplying, selling or trafficking), importing, exporting, processing, possessing, obtaining
and consumption of wild fauna and flora, including timber and other forest products, in contravention of national or international law.”
This publication uses the CITES definition of wildlife as “all wild fauna and flora, including animals, birds and fish, as well as timber and non-timber forest products”.
The term illegal wildlife trade (IWT) focuses on wildlife crimes committed for the primary purpose of illegal trade and extracting profit. IWT is the focus of this resource, since it has a significant impact on sustainable development, security and risk management in both the public and private sectors.
Environmental crime is a wider term encompassing all forestry and fisheries crimes, illegal mining, minerals trafficking, the trafficking or illegal dumping of hazardous materials, chemicals and waste, and the illegal wildlife trade. Crimes that harm the environment are sometimes called “green crimes”.
The main forms of financial crime covered in this publication are bribery and corruption, fraud, money laundering, terrorist financing, forgery and tax evasion.
An important additional focus is the use of legitimate businesses dealing with wildlife, such as zoos, import/export businesses or licensed breeding facilities, to “launder” illegally sourced wildlife into legal markets.
often considered to be a low-risk, high-reward
crime attractive to legitimate wildlife traders, opportunists and organised
crime groups, including transnational organised criminal networks.
Estimates of the value of wildlife
and other environmental crimes range from the low billions to more than a
trillion dollars. Including losses to ecosystem services, the World Bank estimates the annual cost of environmental crime at USD
alone costs the world economy more than USD 200 billion per year.
Wildlife and environmental crimes have annual costs of USD
1–2 trillionAs with any illegal activity, exact figures are hard to pin down. However, illegal wildlife trade is said to be the fourth largest illicit trade globally after weapons, drugs and human
trafficking. And it is growing – according to the United Nations Environment
illegal profits from environment crime are expected to increase at 5–7 percent
each year as criminal groups expand the scope and scale of their activities.
▼ Private-sector risks: reputational, legal, financial, security
Companies are increasingly sensitive to risks associated with wildlife and other environmental crimes. Clients want to work with businesses that act responsibly to safeguard the environment and may avoid working with companies associated with wildlife crime, even unwittingly. ESG factors are increasingly important to investors. Reputational risks are difficult to avoid as social media can quickly spread information on purported or actual misdeeds by a company.
At the same time, legal risks are increasing as organised crime groups engaged in wildlife trafficking extend their range and reach across the globe, lengthening and complicating supply chains and the movement of money and products. Financial institutions and transport companies in particular face significant legal risk at all points of the supply chain if found to be involved in the movement of wildlife in contravention of national or international laws. Animal-based businesses, including zoos, medical research facilities and pet stores, can be held criminally liable for trafficking wildlife.
The vast amounts of money moving through the financial system to fund wildlife trafficking can lead to serious economic losses for financial institutions, and should be accounted for when determining financial risk tolerance.
Moreover, wildlife trafficking represents a serious security threat to companies, particularly in the transport and logistics sectors. Companies that do not know what their vehicles are transporting may be at risk of transporting explosives or other dangerous goods. Corrupt or criminal insiders pose an internal security threat, particularly if they are able to bypass security procedures.
For more insights into private sector risks in relation to IWT, see Wannenwetsch (2019), Wannenwetsch & Aiolfi (2019) and
▼ Demand for wildlife
Wildlife is coveted across the globe for use in traditional medicine, as pets, food, ornaments, jewellery, furniture, artwork, hunting trophies, cultural heritage and for investment purposes.
Demand for wildlife goods relates to multiple factors including the association of wildlife (particularly high-cost goods like ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts) with wealth, elevated social status, purity, beauty and tradition.
Consumption of wild animals demonstrates wealth because they are expensive, and demand increases along with species’ rarity and price (Gao and Clark, 2014 ). As average incomes in demand countries in Asia continue to grow, this will inevitably increase demand for rare wildlife.
Wild animal viewing for commercial purposes is an increasing driver of demand. In China, for example, demand for wild animal exhibits and products has increased substantially in the last decade, with some parks reporting 40-60 percent increases in attendance. This is fuelling increased demand for live wild animal exports, including highly protected species such as African elephants and rhinos. In addition, some large animal park operators in China plan to build marine parks and aquariums in other countries as part of China’s new Belt and Road trade initiative. A similar situation is seen in the Amazon, where tourist attractions sometimes use wild animals to earn cash from tourists visiting the jungle (Daly, 2017).
Globalisation facilitates the easy movement of wildlife products, money, people and information. It allows criminals to use the same IT, finance, storage, transport and retail infrastructures as legitimate companies. These factors further drive demand and enable the illegal trade, in what some scholars have labelled the “dark” side of globalisation (Shelley, 2018).
▼ Impacts of wildlife crime
According to the UNEP (2014):
“The consequences of the illegal trade in wildlife span environmental, societal (including security), and economic impacts – including affecting the resource base for local communities, and resulting in the theft of natural capital at national levels. The illegal trade in wildlife is therefore a barrier to sustainable development.”
Addressing wildlife crime is essential to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Most obviously, wildlife crime undermines SDG 14 (Life below water) and SDG 15 (Life on land). It also affects SDG 1 (No poverty) by denying communities the opportunity to sustainably harvest natural resources for sustenance and economic activity.
The negative effects of wildlife and other environmental crime are felt in every aspect of human life, particularly where commercial and large-scale poaching occur. Wildlife crime, particularly within the fisheries and forest sectors, negatively impacts food, economic, climate and environmental security and drives deforestation and desertification.
Additional critical factors affecting societies and productive economic activity are:
Public health and disease
Although the exact cause of the Covid-19 pandemic is still under investigation at the time of writing, the World Health Organization is actively exploring the possibility that it was triggered by human exploitation of wildlife. This is likely given that "[n]early three quarters of emerging human infectious diseases have animal reservoirs.... zoonotic viruses have been responsible for some of the most significant emerging disease threats to human health and economic development." (World Health Organization, 2021).
The rate of pandemic disease emergence has increased steadily since the early 2000s. Diseases such as Ebola and Marburg disease, SARS, MERS, swine flu, avian flu, and the novel coronavirus all originated in animals. There is widespread concern among experts that without action to curtail IWT, another pandemic is inevitable.
In addition to pandemic disease risks, wildlife crime intersects with a number of national security issues including conflict, terrorism, violent extremism and serious corruption (Jasparro, 2009). Disputes over access to and control of natural resources contribute to conflict. As many as 40 percent of intrastate conflicts over the past 60 years have been linked to natural resources.
The US and Colombia are among the countries to specifically include wildlife and biodiversity degradation as threats to national security. Areas ravaged by wildlife crime are often violent, awash with guns and illegal goods such as drugs. Communities find themselves in physical danger from poachers and criminal gangs. They may be coerced into participating in illegal activities, and are subject to threats and intimidation. Poachers are known to torture and kill anti-poaching personnel, including rangers ( IFAW, 2008).
Terrorist groups are known to profit from wildlife crime. For instance, there is evidence that the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Janjaweed and other non-state militias are the main actors behind wildlife poaching and trafficking on the DRC/Central African Republic border (Ondoua Ondoua, 2017). This chimes with a well-established practice of financing conflict through natural resources (FATF, 2015), such as the diamond trade in Angola (diamonds) and the control of oil fields by the Islamic State terrorist organisation. Protecting wildlife and other natural resources can therefore support efforts to cut off sources of terrorist financing.
▼ Information gaps
Information gaps on the legal and illegal trade in wildlife hamper conservation and enforcement efforts. They also hinder the efforts of private companies and financial institutions to identify and mitigate their risks of being unwitting accomplices to the illicit trade.
One of the key challenges is a lack of up-to-date knowledge on species numbers and conservation status. Given the dynamic nature of ecosystems and the regular discovery of new species, it is unrealistic to expect a comprehensive and accurate database of this type. However, estimates of the scope and scale of the illegal trade within and between countries often rely on decades-old estimates of the number of wild animals trafficked (Charity and Machado Ferreira, 2020; Ege et al, 2020; Sollund, 2013).
Crucial knowledge gaps
- Number of animals or plants in the wild
- Number of animals or plants illegally trafficked per year
- Percentage of species trafficked that are intercepted
- Prices paid for species along the supply chain
- Trade dynamics across species
- Size of illegal domestic markets