Ivory confiscated from poachers © WWF / Mike Goldwater

Ivory confiscated from poachers © WWF / Mike Goldwater

Illegal wildlife trade and poaching

Not everyone views our planet's extraordinary plants and animals the same way as we do. Some see them as a resource to be plundered and to profit from. Around the world, conservation gains are at risk of being overturned by the illegal trade in wildlife, which is growing at an alarming rate.


Wildlife crime is big business. Dangerous international networks traffic wildlife and animal parts much like illegal drugs and arms. While it’s almost impossible to obtain reliable figures for the value of the illegal wildlife trade (excluding timber and fisheries) it is estimated at US$7.8-10 billion per year (GFI, 2011).


Some examples of illegal wildlife trade are well known, such as the poaching of elephants for ivory or tigers for their skins and bones. However, many other plant and animal species are similarly overexploited, from marine turtles to timber trees.


Wildlife crime is one of the largest direct threats to many of the world’s most threatened species, second only to habitat destruction. This is why WWF is determined to combat illegal trade and help tackle the global poaching crisis and unprecedented surge in organised wildlife crime.


The illegal wildlife trade knows no borders. International crime networks often use complicated ever-changing transit routes to take advantage of weak governance and inadequate surveillance. In many cases its impact is exacerbated by habitat loss and other pressures. However, if actions and funds are well focused there are significant opportunities for conservation success along known illegal wildlife trade pathways.


Threatening species populations

Growing demand for ivory, particularly from Asia, has led to a surge in African elephant poaching in recent years. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed annually to meet the demand for ivory products, putting elephant populations — especially in central and eastern Africa— at considerable risk.


Compromised security

There can also be far-reaching security implications from organised illegal wildlife trade. It is run by criminal networks with a wide, international reach. Some also traffic illegal drugs, arms and even people. Poaching and wildlife trafficking also undermines sustainable development and community livelihoods and safety, posing related challenges around law enforcement, poverty and economic opportunities.

What we're doing

Much of WWF’s work to stop the illegal trade in wildlife is in collaboration with TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. We also work closely with other conservation organisations, local communities and governments.

Some examples include:



As human populations grow, so does the demand for wildlife products. At one end of the spectrum, growing affluence fuels an appetite for seafood, leather goods, timber, medicinal ingredients and textiles. At the other, extreme poverty can mean some people see wildlife as a valuable, if not only, source of income.


Demand drives crime

Rhino horn, elephant ivory and tiger products continue to command high prices, especially in Asia. In Vietnam, a myth that rhino horn could cure cancer contributed to massive poaching in South Africa however horn now appears to be used and given as a status symbol. Vulnerable wild animals are pushed closer to the edge of extinction when their natural population growth cannot keep pace with human consumption.


Gaps in protection

Corruption, toothless laws, weak judicial systems and light sentences allow criminal networks to keep plundering wildlife with little regard for the consequences. Poachers are usually the only ones caught, leaving the real masterminds and their networks safe from prosecution. The illegal trade is therefore a low risk business that attracts high returns. WWF is trying to change the balance to make wildlife trade high risk and low reward.


Ivory bracelets on sale in Thailand © WWF / James Morgan

© WWF / James Morgan


Stop wildlife crime

The Wildlife Crime Initiative (WCI) is a long term collaboration between WWF and TRAFFIC. It has helped with penalties being strengthened, crime networks being disrupted, consumers rejecting illegal products, and wildlife being saved from poachers’ snares, bullets and poison.


Together WWF and TRAFFIC:

work with governments to protect threatened animal populations by increasing law enforcement, imposing strict deterrents, reducing demand for endangered species products and honouring international commitments made under CITES

ensure that local communities have alternative opportunities to being unwilling accomplices in wildlife crime

ensure that those on the front line being threatened by armed poachers are properly equipped, trained and compensated

reduce demand for illegal wildlife parts and products by encouraging others to be informed shoppers.

You can help – Use apps like Wildlife Witness (TRAFFIC / Taronga Zoo) when you go abroad to record any suspicious wildlife trade and help make it harder for wildlife criminals to operate.


For more information on wildlife crime and the joint Wildlife Crime Initiative between WWF and TRAFFIC click here.


Recommended reading

Hawksbill turtle hatchlings making their way to the ocean in Milman Island © WWF-Aus / Christine Hof

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