Jul 28

Populations of tigers, elephants, rhinos and many other species are being decimated by immense organised crime syndicates and the illegal wildlife trade, according to a recent paper by WCS conservationist Elisabeth Bennett.

Photo of a Sumatran tigress

Sumatran tigress

Illegal trade in wildlife parts is becoming increasingly sophisticated, backed by highly efficient organised crime rings. This, coupled with dated enforcement methods, is causing populations of some of the world’s most charismatic species to plummet on an unprecedented scale.

The paper, published last month in Oryx, suggests that much of the trade is driven by wealthy East Asian markets that have a ‘seemingly insatiable appetite’ for wildlife parts.

Demand driven by East Asian markets

High-value body parts and products, such as rhino horn and bear bile, are just two of the much sought after items often destined for East Asian markets. Each year, international organisations such as TRAFFIC and CITES report on hundreds of cases of illegal trade in wildlife from around the world.

According to Bennett, sophisticated smuggling operations carried out by organised crime syndicates have allowed the gangs to devastate wildlife populations more than ever before.

Photo of skins of poached Indian rhinoceros, Nepal

Skins of poached Indian rhinoceros, Nepal

Current enforcement systems were not established to tackle wildlife crime seen on today’s scale, and weak governance and inadequate resources facilitate the flourishing trade. The paper highlights some of the elaborate methods used by the crime rings, including hidden compartments in shipping containers, rapidly changing smuggling routes to avoid detection, and the use of e-commerce (buying and selling online), making it difficult to detect locations.

“Unless we start taking wildlife crime seriously and allocating the commitment of resources appropriate to tackling sophisticated, well-funded, globally-linked criminal operations, populations of some of the most beloved but economically prized, charismatic species will continue to wink out across their range, and, appallingly, altogether” says Bennett.

Urgent need for law enforcement

In her paper, Bennett highlights that enforcement of wildlife laws is an immediate short-term solution to stave off local extinction of wildlife.

Enforcement includes everything from increasing the numbers of staff at all points of the trade chain, to ensuring that staff are highly trained and well-equipped. New technology may also help with enforcing wildlife laws, such as smart-phone apps with species identification programs.

Photo of a guard showing all the animal traps collected within two months in Virunga National Park, habitat of the mountain gorilla

Guard showing all the animal traps collected within two months in Virunga National Park, habitat of the mountain gorilla

Enforcement is critical,” says Bennett, “Old-fashioned in concept but needing increasingly advanced methods to challenge the ever-more sophisticated methods of smuggling. When enforcement is thorough, and with sufficient resources and personnel, it works.”

Success in tackling the devastating illegal trade in wildlife, says Bennett in her paper, will necessitate commitment from governments and non-governmental organizations and the support of civil society.

Read the WCS Press Release.

Read the paper in Oryx.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

  • hilary (July 28th, 2011 at 3:40 pm):

    This isnt new! Poachers and crime syndicates are taking out our wildlife. The research is great but is anyone actually doing anything but writing about it? 1 rhino a day gets poached in SA. Only a few more years and they’ll join the dodo.

  • Andy Mabbett (July 28th, 2011 at 8:36 pm):



    I’ve called upon UK police forces to make it easier to find out about their wildlife crime officers – who deal with local crime like shooting at swans, and international matters like the illegal import of endangered species.