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Wildlife trade: what is it?

Display of illegal wildlife products used in Chinese medicine
Display of illegal wildlife products used in Chinese medicine confiscated by customs officers at Heathrow Airport, UK. © WWF-Canon/Edward PARKER
Wildlife trade is any sale or exchange of wild animal and plant resources by people. This can involve live animals and plants or a diverse range of products needed or prized by humans—including skins, medicinal ingredients, tourist curios, timber, fish and other food products. Most wildlife trade is probably within national borders, but there is a large volume of wildlife in trade internationally.

There are many reasons why wildlife is traded, including:

  • food—fruits, mushrooms, nuts, leaves and tubers, are particular important resources in sustaining livelihoods in many rural areas. Wild animals (including fish) contribute at least a fifth of the animal protein in rural diets in more than 60 countries. A TRAFFIC study demonstrated reliance on wild meat is growing in Eastern and Southern Africa in response to increased human populations and poverty.
  • fuel—trees and plants are an important source of fuel for cooking and heating, especially in rural areas
  • fodder—considered very important non-wood forest products in arid regions of Asia and Africa
  • building materials—for example, timber for furniture and housing to ingredients in manufacturing processes, such as gums and resins
  • clothing and ornaments—leather, furs, feathers etc
  • sport—from falconry to trophy hunting
  • healthcare—everything from herbal remedies, traditional medicines to ingredients for industrial pharmaceuticals. An estimated 80 % of the world's population are said to rely for primary health care on traditional medicines
  • religion—many animals and plants or derivatives are used for religious purposes);
  • collections—many wildlife specimens and curios are collected by museums and private individuals

The primary motivating factor for wildlife traders is economic, ranging from small scale local income generation to major profit-oriented business, such as marine fisheries and logging companies.

Between collectors of wildlife and the ultimate users, any number of middlemen may be involved in the wildlife trade, including specialists involved in storage, handling, transport, manufacturing, industrial production, marketing, and the export and retail businesses.

In fact most of us are involved in wildlife trade in some way, even if it just as end consumers of wildlife products.

The wildlife trade involves hundreds of millions of individual plants and animals from tens of thousands of species.

Big leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) marked for felling by the logging company. © WWF-Canon/James FRANKHAM
Timber and seafood are the most important categories of international wildlife trade, in terms of both volume and value. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than $100 billion of fish were traded and nearly $200 billion timber in 2009. To put this into perspective, in the same year, the global trade value of tea, coffee and spices all together was $24.3 billion.

It is estimated that 70 000 species of plant are used for medicinal purposes alone.  Additionally, approximately 25% of ‘modern’ pharmacy medicines have been developed based on the medicinal properties of wild species. Little is known about the status of many of these species, although those that have been assessed show a concerning picture.

International trade in species of conservation concern is monitored by CITES. From 2005 - 2009, CITES recorded an annual average of more than 317,000 live birds, just over 2 million live reptiles, 2.5 million crocodilian skins, 1.5 million lizard skins, 2.1 million snake skins, 73 tonnes of caviar, 1.1 million coral pieces and nearly 20,000 hunting trophies.

Not all trade is legal of course: between 2005 and 2009 EU enforcement authorities made over 12,000 seizures of illegal wildlife products in the EU.

In the early 1990s, TRAFFIC estimated the value of legal wildlife products imported globally was around USD160 billion. In 2009, the estimated value of global imports was over USD323 billion. 

TRAFFIC estimated the legal trade of wildlife products into the EU alone was worth an estimated €93 billion in 2005, and this increased to nearly €100 billion in 2009.

By its very nature, it is almost impossible to obtain reliable figures for the value of illegal wildlife trade, but the figure must run into hundreds of millions of dollars. The value of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries alone has been estimated as between USD10-23 billion per year (MRAG & FERR, 2008), while the value of the illegal international timber trade has been estimated as USD7 billion per year, and the illegal wildlife trade, excluding timber and fisheries as USD7.8-10 billion per year (GFI, 2011).

As human populations have grown, so has the demand for wildlife. People in developed countries have become used to a lifestyle which fuels demand for wildlife; they expect to have access to a variety of seafoods, leather goods, timbers, medicinal ingredients, textiles etc. Conversely, extreme poverty of others means they regard wildlife as a means to meet their short-term needs and will trade it for whatever they can get.

Over-exploitation is a major concern:

  • wildlife is vital to a high proportion of the world's population. People depend directly on wildlife for consumption and as a way of earning cash. However, irresponsible wildlife trade is threatening this resource, and those most affected tend to be the poorest people, in developing nations.
  • 1467551-1217993-thumbnail.jpg
    Red-eared terrapin from America released in Danube Nationalpark, Austria. © WWF-Canon/Anton VORAUER
    illegal wildlife trade causes additional problems. The species traded are often already highly threatened and in danger of extinction, conditions under which wildlife is transport are often appalling, operators are unscrupulous and do not care how they damage the environment(for example they use cyanide to kill fish, or log in protected areas; illegal trade undermines nations' efforts to manage their natural resources sustainably and causes massive economic losses in lost earnings. It is often said that illegal wildlife trade is the third most valuable illicit commerce behind drugs and arms.
  • introducing invasive species that prey upon, or out compete native species. Invasive species are a major cause of recent extinctions. Wildlife traders have purposely introduced many invasive species, such as American Mink, Red-eared Terrapin and many plant species.

There are certain places where wildlife trade is particularly threatening called "wildlife trade hotspots". They include China's international borders, trade hubs in East/Southern Africa and South-east Asia, the eastern borders of the European Union, some markets in Mexico, parts of the Caribbean, parts of Indonesia and New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.

TRAFFIC seeks and activates solutions to the problems created by illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade. Our aim is to encourage sustainability by providing decision-makers, traders and others involved in wildlife trade reliable information about the environmental harm irresponsible trade can cause, and present guidance on how to counteract it.

Legislation is a vital way to control wildlife trade, but to be successful, laws need to be widely understood, accepted and practical to apply.

A major part of TRAFFIC's programme is working closely with law makers, law enforcers and the judiciary, to ensure appropriate laws are in place, are fully understood by those enforcing them and transgressors receive appropriate penalties.

Halting biodiversity loss: Towards sustainable wildlife trade in Central America 
(PDF, 700 KB) A briefing paper aimed at decision makers about the significance of wildlife trade between the EU and Central America

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