What is the illegal wildlife trade?

How big is the problem, and who is involved?
06 March 2018

Interview with 

Paul De’Ornellas, Zoological Society of London


When we talk about the illegal wildlife trade, what species are hit and why is it a problem? To find out, Georgia Mills went to ZSL London Zoo to meet with scientist Paul De’Ornellas, and come face to face with an animal in danger of extinction from the trade...

Paul - The illegal wildlife trade, it’s a sort of all encompassing term, but it’s looking at some of the issues around those species that are traded, either in whole or in part, and it’s associated with illegality, often associated with international organised crime networks. And it’s rapidly being recognised over the last years as being a really significant issue, not just for wildlife, although that’s obviously why and organisation like ZSL is engaged in it, but also around criminality, governance, lawlessness, undermining local people’s livelihood options and so on. I think that a recent UN assessment estimated that annually illegal wildlife trade accounts for anything up to 10 to 20 billion US Dollars per year, which puts it in the same league as things like narcotics, weapons, people trafficking and so on.

Georgia - We’re standing outside the tiger enclosure, can we go and have a look at the tigers?

Paul - We can indeed. I think the tigers are nestling on their hot rocks which, to be honest, I’m quite envious of today. Yeah, there they are stretched out one arm in the air.

Georgia - Oh yeah. They do not realise it’s snowing out outside do they?

Paul - No. I don’t think we’re going to move them from there.

Georgia - So these overgrown tabby cats, they’re absolutely beautiful. What would someone want an animal like this for in the context of the illegal wildlife trade?

Paul - To be honest, with tigers it’s almost any part of their body associated with traditional Chinese medicine and other tonics and so on, so bones, skin, even blood and other body parts which is a really major issue affecting them today.

Georgia - Oh God. That’s a tragedy really - they’re just so great all in one piece.

Paul - Indeed. It’s hard to put a figure on exact numbers but there’s probably less than 4,000 tigers in the wild at present. That’s gone down from substantially more than that so around about the turn of the 19th, 20th century so it really is imperative that we take action against trade that’s affecting these species or we’ll lose them forever.

Georgia - So these guys have their hot rock they’re resting on. We don’t have the luxury, we’re outside in the cold so shall we go in and warm up somewhere?

Paul - Sounds good.

Georgia - You mentioned earlier this is a massive industry. This isn’t someone just nicking eggs off a beach and eating them. This is like a huge thing so who are the key players involved here in each step of the process?

Paul - It’s a very complex picture. It does actually go all the way from people from rural communities who may be, willingly or not, implicated in the illegal wildlife trade. They may be poaching something and then selling it to middlemen who then pass it on to people further up - a sort of criminal network. It depends really on the product but if you’re looking, for example, something like ivory you’ll see middlemen sourcing them from a number of different locations before they then pass out via either airports or international ports, and then moving around the world. It’s actually incredibly flexible in making use of the criminal networks that ship and trade all sorts of other products as well.

Georgia - Now with us is a little - it looks like an anteater. It’s very furry and very sweet and I’m stroking it now. Not a real animal, it’s a fluffy cuddly one I should point out, but what is this and why am I cuddling this toy?

Paul - I can certainly answer the first part of the question, or try to - this is a pangolin. Species wise, it looks to me like a giant pangolin from Africa.

Georgia - You can identify the cuddly toy?

Paul - I’m being cautious, and no-one else can see it so I’m probably on safe ground. Apart from looking like a little dinosaur and generally being a pretty cool animal, it has the dubious distinction of having been the most heavily trafficked wild mammal in the world at present. For some species we talk about body parts representing two lions or fifty or a hundred elephants, for pangolins they’re traded in tons. Primarily, that’s for consumption in east and Southeast Asia, whether that’s for food or medicinal products.

Georgia - How do you move something of that scale?

Paul - For pangolins, what we’re seeing is, where the scales are often stripped off, put into big bags, and then shipped almost like any other good. And we come back to this idea of illegal wildlife trade or wildlife crime as being another crime.

For the criminals involved, it’s about making money from utilising a product and, unfortunately, these endangered species are the product and whilst it remains relatively low risk, and relatively high benefit then those sorts of criminal gangs are going to get involved. It’s our job and the job of the enforcement agents and others who are trying to protect these species, to try and alter that balance so that it becomes a high risk and lower gain opportunity for criminals and hopefully then they’ll move onto… well hopefully not engage in any criminal activity, but certainly move away from wildlife.

Georgia - Maybe they’ll just stick to theft - plain old theft.

Paul - Narcotics, that sort of thing. Things that don’t bother us.


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