How Does Wildlife Trafficking Impact People and the Environment?

Wildlife trafficking is an international environmental crime.  It’s also one of the world’s largest organized crimes run by international criminal networks. With the emergence of social media and online trading platforms, illegal wildlife trade has become more accessible to poachers and wildlife traffickers than ever before.

The illicit trade of wildlife and their parts threatens millions of animals' survival worldwide, accelerates the biodiversity crisis, and endangers our planet. But it’s not just animals that suffer. Wildlife trafficking causes devastating impacts on ecosystems, human health, and the global economy.

Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment (BE.Center) helps shift behavioral norms and attitudes to combat environmentally destructive practices like illegal wildlife trade. We work with scientists, government officials, and community leaders to identify motives and socialize change that supports targeted behaviors for nature.
February 8, 2023

What is wildlife trafficking?

Wildlife trade, wildlife trafficking, wildlife crime… it can be challenging to understand the difference in terminology.  In simple terms, wildlife trade is taking and selling alive or dead wild animals or their parts. The trade can include legal or illegal species. Wildlife trafficking refers to poaching an animal for intended trade purposes, typically involving smuggling the animal across city or country zones to reach the consumer. Wildlife crime is the umbrella term for all crimes against wildlife.  

Why are animals poached and trafficked?

International wildlife trade thrives off a variety of demands. Wildlife trade networks capture and exploit animals like tiger cubs, monkeys, and rare lizards for the exotic pet trade. Animal parts like rhino horns, elephant tusks, and jaguar fangs are highly valued and traded for billions of dollars around the world. Pseudo-science also drives wildlife trade, as many animals are falsely thought to have medicinal or aphrodisiacal benefits.  

It’s important to recognize that the poaching and trafficking of wildlife operates through a hierarchy with various motives at each level. Not all poachers are kingpins largely benefiting from the illegal wildlife trade—in fact, most individuals labeled as poachers hunt out of necessity. Economic hardship and a lack of financial opportunities are two of the biggest driving factors that push people to kill wildlife. Additional reasons may include a need for money to feed their family, buy medicine, or pay for children’s education. Because wildlife trade is complex and multi-faceted, we must analyze all factors and systems in place to develop real solutions that target the economic and social challenges at the root of the issue. 

What is the most trafficked animal?

The most trafficked animal in the world is the pangolin, a scaly mammal found in Africa and Southeast Asia. The demand for pangolin meat as a delicacy and scales for traditional Chinese medicine fuels illegal trade, driving the animal towards extinction. TRAFFIC reports that wildlife traffickers captured and sold more than one million pangolins into the black-market trade from 2000-2015. Despite CITES protections and China’s 2020 decision to upgrade protections for pangolins, the species continues to face extinction. 

How does wildlife trade affect biodiversity?

Wildlife trafficking contributes to the drastic rate at which we are losing species worldwide, further fueling the biodiversity crisis. Critically endangered animals like the black rhino, African elephant, and Amur leopard are on the brink of extinction mainly due to poaching and wildlife trade.  

How does the illegal wildlife trade impact the environment?

Illegal wildlife trade contributes to the biodiversity crisis and the loss of thousands of animals every year. Each species plays a critical role in the health of a functioning ecosystem. Monkeys transport seeds, birds pollinate forests, sharks maintain healthy coral reef ecosystems, and so much more. When animals are removed from their natural ecosystems, the environment cannot thrive to its best ability.  

Many poaching methods also hurt the environment by damaging surrounding habitats and untargeted wildlife. For example, some poachers use cyanide bombs to momentarily stun tropical fish and capture them for the aquarium fish trade. The cyanide bomb blows apart coral reefs and hurts other untargeted marine species like fish, algae, and coral polyps in the process. The bioaccumulation of lead poisoning is another example of the harmful environmental impact of poaching. Poachers are known to use lead ammunition to kill large animals like elephants and rhinos for their ivory and horns. When vultures and other scavengers consume the left-over carcasses, they absorb lead in their bodies and suffer from various deadly health problems.  

How does wildlife trafficking impact humans?

Not only is wildlife trafficking a grave concern for biodiversity, but it also hurts local economies and overall human health. Many local communities worldwide rely on wildlife tourism as a primary source of income. The loss of wildlife directly decreases tourism, causing a ripple effect that impacts restaurants, hotels, and other sources of livelihood for local community members.  

International wildlife trade directly leads to increased zoonotic pandemics and infectious diseases. Wet markets (live animal markets where wildlife is sold in urban settings) are breeding grounds for zoonotic diseases, like the one that likely caused the Coronavirus outbreak. Consuming infected bushmeat can also transmit diseases to humans. Stopping wildlife trafficking and trade is necessary to prevent the next global pandemic. 

How can we prevent wildlife trafficking?

Combating wildlife trafficking requires strategic collaboration among frontline rangers, scientists, government agencies, local communities, and consumers. Each group plays a critical role in stopping wildlife traffickers along the market chain. Educating communities about animals’ suffering and the trade’s ecological impacts can help lower consumer demand and develop a market for sustainable alternatives.  

Consumers can also do the following: 

  • Say no to cub petting and other exotic animal attractions while vacationing.  
  • Urge local governments to take greater action against wildlife trafficking. 
  • Support local wildlife rangers and enforcement officers so they have the necessary tools to prevent poaching incidents.  
  • Report wildlife products on online commerce sites and social media. 
  • Ask questions to vendors and look for certified products before buying plant or wildlife products in markets. 

How does Rare help combat wildlife trafficking?

Policy change and enforcement are more effective when we address the underlying motivations and barriers tied to wildlife trafficking. Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment  (BE.Center) helps shift behavioral norms and attitudes to combat environmentally destructive practices. The BE.Center works with conservationists, scientists, and policymakers to build a network of professionals using behavioral solutions to fight against illegal wildlife trade. Our experts also host trainings with local organizations, governments, and wildlife rangers to discuss illegal wildlife trade and teach behavior changes that can help develop solutions to wildlife trafficking.  


Photo Credit: Jason Houston for Rare