Commercial Trade of Wildlife

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Humans have used wild animal and plant products for numerous purposes since prehistoric times. Clothing was made from animal skins, and tools from bones. In many societies, products from rare species symbolized wealth and success. For example, flashy feathers from South American birds were given as a tribute to Inca chiefs by their subjects, and women in nineteenth-century Europe sported ostrich feathers in their hats. In East Asia, animal parts have been used to prepare medicines and aphrodisiacs. Exotic species have also been kept as pets—cheetahs and falcons, for example, were kept for hunting. In addition, species such as dogs, cats, apes, monkeys, frogs, guinea pigs, rats, and mice are used in scientific research.

Sadly, overexploitation of wild species for commercial gain is the second most important cause of animal extinction, after habitat loss. According to the World Conservation Union's 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, hunting, collection, and trade affect 37 percent of all bird species, 34 percent of mammals, and 8 percent of surveyed plant species. Once non-domesticated animal species are considered commodities, they have an extremely high likelihood of becoming endangered. A small subset of endangered species currently affected by trade include whales hunted for meat and blubber; exotic birds captured for the illegal pet trade; rhinos poached for their horns; minks killed for their pelts; snakes, alligators, and lizards hunted for their skins; and elephants slaughtered for their ivory tusks. The argalis (see Figure 10.1) is a species of wild sheep endangered because trophy hunters seek its massive horns.


Numerous wild animal species are hunted for their fur pelts or leather hides. These are used to make coats, hats, shoes, gloves, belts, purses, and other accessories. This has led to the near extermination of mammals and reptiles such as minks, foxes, beavers, seals, alligators and crocodiles, chinchillas, otters, and wild cats. Birds were once hunted for fashion as well—species of egrets, herons, spoonbills, and songbirds were slaughtered by the thousands to supply plumes for women's hats during the nineteenth century.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, the fur industry turned increasingly to domestically raised animals, not because of environmental concerns but because they found it too economically risky to leave the acquisition of pelts to chance. Fur farms opened on Prince Edward Island in Canada in 1887 and quickly spread across the country. At their height, there were well over 10,000 fur farms. By 1939, however, rising costs, the loss of European markets, and changes in fashion reduced fur demand. Canadian fur farms were reduced to less than 2,000 primarily mink farms by the middle of the twentieth century. In August 1998 animal rights activists in England, unhappy with fur farm practices, released thousands of minks from cages. The minks escaped into the district of New Forest, where they wrought havoc on natural habitats and attacked chicken farms. Many were eventually trapped and killed.

In 2000 the world market for shahtoosh, the wool of the Tibetan chiru antelope, came under scrutiny by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Measures were adopted at the CITES meeting in Nairobi, Kenya that year to reduce chiru poaching. The Fish and Wildlife Service also proposed listing the chiru as an endangered species, but this is still pending in 2004. The chiru is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.

Crocodilian Leathers

Among the most biologically costly of fashion trends is the use of reptilian hide for leather shoes, belts, wallets, and other accessories. High fashion has never tired of the look and feel of tanned crocodilian leather, with alligator skin the most popular of all reptile hides. Louisiana's Department of Agriculture estimates that 90 percent of alligator hide originates in the United States, particularly from the bayou regions of Louisiana. Finished products are costly, with alligator purses selling for $200–$1,000 apiece.

Largely because of the demand of European designers for alligator hide, the American alligator was first listed as an endangered species in 1967. It was reclassified as threatened in the 1970s as populations recovered in response to conservation efforts. The American alligator was finally delisted in 1987. As a result of their one time endangerment, Fish and Wildlife representatives continue to monitor alligator egg harvesting and hunting, particularly in Louisiana.

Huia Birds—Plucked to Extinction

Unlike American alligators, which were brought back from endangerment, the fate of the Huia bird was more tragic. The beautiful Huia, native to New Zealand, was hunted to extinction during the 1920s, primarily because of demand for adornments made from its luxurious feathers. The species was characterized by black plumes with striking white tips. In addition, Huia feathers figured prominently in the native Maori culture of New Zealand, and Maoris hunted the species as well. The Huia was declared extinct in 1930.


Many wild species are valued by collectors, including spiders, insects such as beetles or butterflies, and plants, particularly orchids and cacti. Rare species are particularly sought after. For that reason Fish and Wildlife biologists are sometimes reluctant to reveal the critical habitats of threatened and endangered species in the United States. Despite strict prohibition under the Endangered Species Act, however, the poaching of numerous imperiled species thrives.

Exotic species including wild birds, reptiles, and mammals are also valued in the illegal pet trade. According to CITES, approximately 40,000 primates were illegally traded annually in the 1990s. Animal smuggling is an extremely lucrative business, and international efforts to halt it have not been successful. This is attributed in large part to shoddy or nonexistent inspection due to lack of funds and manpower.

The Reptile Trade

The reptile trade is extremely lucrative, with large profits and low transport costs. In addition, trade in reptiles is less closely controlled and monitored than that of mammals and birds. Illegally collected reptiles are used primarily for food, although some species also bring in huge sums in the pet trade.

In 1998 decades of effort by U.S. and Mexican agents culminated in the apprehension of a Malaysian reptile smuggler in Mexico City. He was convicted of heading a large smuggling operation that procured live threatened and endangered reptiles from the wild for sale as exotic pets. Animals were transported from Asia into North America via Mexico. Between 1995 and 1998 this smuggling ring was estimated to have brought in over three hundred protected animals worth about $500,000. These included a Chinese alligator that sold for $15,000 on the black market, monitor lizards that brought in $3,000 apiece, and a ten-foot Komodo dragon from Indonesia that sold for $30,000.

In March 2001 the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the Royal Customs and Excise announced the interception of two large shipments of threatened reptiles. The first included 1,100 animals, and the second included sixty rare snakes, tortoises, and spiders.

Some exotic reptiles, including green iguanas and boa constrictors, can be legally obtained and kept as pets. However, many of the owners who acquire these animals fail to realize the responsibilities involved. Giant green iguanas, a favorite of reptile collectors, may grow to six feet in length, a size many owners find unmanageable. Giant green iguanas are also particularly susceptible to metabolic bone disease (MBD), which results from calcium deficiency and causes severe deformity or death. Although MBD can be cured, treatment is costly, and pet owners frequently decide to get rid of their pets rather than seek veterinary care. In addition some owners dispose of overgrown or diseased reptilian pets in sewers or other public conduits, creating dangers for native species. (This is the source of long-time rumors that alligators inhabit New York City sewers.)

Illegal Trade of Wild Birds

Human desire for exotic pets is emptying the skies of some of Earth's most colorful creatures. (See Figure 10.2.) Numerous bird species, particularly parrots, are endangered due to overexploitation for the illegal pet trade. Approximately 75 percent of the exotic birds sold as pets in the United States were caught in the wild rather than bred in captivity. Demand for exotic pets results in very high prices, as much as $10,000 or more for certain species. In the United States, a single parrot can easily command a thousand dollars or more. Table 10.1 shows some of the potential profits to be made in the rare bird trade.

Illegal trade in birds is thriving worldwide. Due to a lack of financial resources, most countries are only rarely able to enforce laws designed to control trade. The European community has no enforcement agency to deal with the issue, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is grossly underfunded in this respect. Illegal traders often use legal trade as a cover, relying on falsification of documents, under-declaration of the number of birds in a shipment, concealment of illegal birds in legal shipments, capture in excess of quotas, and misdeclaration of species. The United States, the largest importer of wild birds in the world, legally brings half a million exotic birds into the country each year. An estimated 100,000 more may be smuggled into the country, with as many as 60 percent of the birds dying in transit because of terrible shipping conditions. Illegal smuggling continues despite the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992, which banned the import of ten species of threatened birds. In 1993 the law was expanded to include almost all CITES-listed bird species.

Bird trapping varies from country to country. Most methods are indiscriminate and result in the capture of untargeted species. In liming, a "teaser" bird lures other birds to trees, where they become stuck on limes, or glued sticks. Liming causes great stress to captured birds. In addition, limes are sometimes set and left, with the result that birds break legs or wings struggling to get loose. Nets are also used to capture wild birds in Latin America and Africa. Decoy birds are used to attract the target species. In night capture, birds are immobilized using a bright light and caught. Nylon loops are sometimes strung around

Country and speciesPrice for trapperExporter declared valueExporter price listRetail value in importing country
Senegal parrot$1.8242.70115
Meyer's parrot$2.10717.25105
Blue and Gold macaw$5.00175325750
Orange-winged Amazon$2–3.002532298
Blue-fronted Amazon$1.20–3.502370–136340
Red lory$2.521815–20230
White cockatoo$6.5085100800–900
source: "Profits to Be Made in the Rare-Bird Trade," in Flight to Extinction—The Wild-Caught Bird Trade, Animal Welfare Institute and Environmental Investigation Agency, Washington, DC, 1997

perches to entangle birds. As with liming, nylon loops are indiscriminate in their capture of birds, and many birds are seriously injured attempting to escape. In fact, in Indonesia 10 to 30 percent of cockatoos caught with nylon loops are rendered commercially nonviable because of injuries to their legs and feet. In wing shooting, pellets are shot into a flock, rendering some birds unable to fly and easy to capture. More birds are killed than captured in the process, and many of the captured individuals die later. Finally, young birds are sometimes taken from the nest. This method, also called tree-felling, is used to acquire parrots from the wild because pet dealers prefer young birds that can more easily be trained to "talk." The parrots' nesting tree is often cut down or hacked apart, rendering it useless as future habitat. Consequently, this is one of the most environmentally destructive methods of capture.

Tropical Fish

Collection of tropical fish species for the aquarium trade has harmed numerous species. In Hawaii, a major supplier of saltwater species for the aquarium market, fish depletion has led to conflicts between tropical reef fish collectors, scuba diving operations, and subsistence fishers. Lisa Choquette, the owner of a scuba tour business, explains that "areas that we take divers to all the time, and that once had rivers of fish swimming in and out of the corals, are now quite barren." In addition, several tropical species collected as tiny juveniles for the aquarium trade ultimately grow into large fish sought by subsistence fishermen. Exploitation of reef fish for trade has increased over the past decades, from 90,000 fish taken in 1973 to over 423,000 in 1995. Aquarium species collected most commonly in Hawaii include the yellow tang, kole, Achilles tang, longnose butterfly fish, Moorish idol, orangespine unicornfish, and Potter's angelfish. Fish populations have declined significantly in locations where aquarium collection occurs. For example, the Achilles tang has declined by 63 percent and the longnose butterfly fish by 54 percent.

In response to these declines, Hawaii passed a bill establishing several Fish Replenishment Areas where collecting is prohibited. Biologists are also trying to develop captive breeding programs, so that aquarium species can be raised in captivity rather than collected from the wild.


Numerous populations of both animals and plants are being depleted for medicinal purposes. The World Health Organization reports that 80 percent of the world population depends largely on animal or plant-based medicines. In addition, plant and animal derivatives are frequently used as components of modern medicines or herbal remedies.

At the top of wildlife contraband lists are aphrodisiacs and arthritis cures made from rhinoceros and tiger parts (none of which has been shown to be effective). In 1992 the Fish and Wildlife Service seized over $500,000 worth of East Asian medicines containing endangered species parts at the Port of Newark in New Jersey. According to a 1996 report from the Environmental News Network, illicit trade in medicinal substances is a booming business in Hong Kong, where there is little that money can't buy. Table 10.2 shows a list of endangered animal parts found in a single market in Golden Rock, Myanmar during a brief study in 2000. The study was conducted by TRAFFIC, a wildlife advocacy and monitoring organization sponsored jointly by the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Table 10.2 also lists the reasons why these animal products are valued by locals. Most of the documented animal products at Golden Rock were from mammals, though some were derived from reptiles or birds.

Threats to African Wildlife

Numerous African species are seriously threatened by demand for medicinal ingredients. Of East African and South African wildlife alone, a total of 131 plant and animal

SpeciesPartQuantityUsePriceNational lawCITES
Asiatic Black BearUrsus thibetanusskins5PI
paws29Oil for treating aching jointsK 2000 each
rendered fatnumerousTo improve hair condition and white skin patchesK 600/bottle
skulls8Drink made from the paste to treat children's mouth diseases
Oil for treating aching joints
gall bladder5K 5000 each
CatFelis sp?small skullsnumerousI/II
LeopardPanthera parduspaws20I
penis and testes1Stimulate sex hormones
LeopardPanthera pardusTPI
or Clouded LeopardNeofelis nebulosaskeleton5TPI
TigerPanthera tigriscanines2To protect the homeK 2500 eachTPI
bone pieces4unknown
head13Oil for treating aching joints
Common Palm CivetParadosurus hermaphroditusskin1PIII
DolphinCetaceaskin with fins?I/II
and fat layer2Oil for treating aching joints
ElephantElephas maximussole of foot6Paste applied to skin to cure hernias*TPI
skin (pieces)25To cure fungal skin infections
tail hairnumerousRings worn to protect against supernatural attack/to attract women
tail2Hung in the home to bring business success
leg bones1.5Carving material. Paste to cure piles
bonesnumerousCarved into beads for Buddhist prayer necklacesK 100 each
5Carved into figurines
SpeciesPartQuantityUsePriceNational lawCITES
MacaqueMacaca sp.skull33Oil/ornamental purposesII
OtterLutra or Aonyx sp.charred body1Oil for treating aching jointsTPI/II
head1Oil for treating aching joints
PangolinManis sp.skins3Treatment for children's diseases: scales hung on a string around a child's neckTPII
PorcupineHystrix sp.head1
quillsnumerousQuills dipped in lime are used in light acupuncture (without breaking skin) on back of neck to cure headaches
SerowCapricornis sumatraensisheads34Manufacture of traditional buttonsnot protectedIII
skulls10Oil for treating aching jointsTPI
legs4Oil for treating aching joints
Wild PigSus sp.skull3Oil for treating aching joints
Squirreltails20Ornament and possibly medicine
SquirrelCallosciurus sp.stuffed1Key-chains
Giant Flying SquirrelPetaurista sp.charred body2Ornamentnot protected-
TreeshrewTupia sp.stuffed3Oil for treating aching jointsnot protected-
Giant squirrelRatufa sp.stuffed2OrnamentPII
Reticulated PythonPython reticulatusskins26Ornamentnot protectedII
Rock PythonPython molurusskins8Sold to visiting middlemen for onward sale to leather factoriesApprox. K 700/metreTPII
PythonPython sp.meat15As abovePII
Oil for treating aching joints
Elongated TortoiseIndotestudo elongatashell1Manufacture of combs according to dealer, although this is questionablePII
Great HornbillBuceros bicornishead4OrnamentTPI
shell1Oil applied to white skin blotches
TP: totally protected; P: protected; SP: seasonally protected; *unless a domesticated elephant
K: Kyat (currency)
CITES: Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species
source: "Table 1. Observations during survey of Golden Rock, 16–17 April, 2000," in "Observations on Wildlife Trade at Golden Rock, Myanmar," TRAFFIC Bulletin, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2001

species required attention by conservation management organizations in 1998.

Over 100 African plant species were cited by TRAFFIC as overexploited and in need of conservation management. This included the Sudanese Aloe sinkatana, whose leaves and leaf excretions are used for treating skin disorders and diseases of the digestive system. Adansonia digi-tata, a tree, is also in decline because its fruit and bark are used in treating dysentery. The bark of the afromontane tree species, Prunus africana, is also overexploited for treatment of prostate gland diseases. Over one thousand tons of P. africana bark were exported from Kenya between 1990 and 1998. France imported four tons of P. africana extract from Madagascar. CITES initiated international trade control of this tree species in 1994.

At least 100 animal species are used in traditional medicine in eastern and southern Africa. Among the animals most threatened by medicinal trade is the African rock python, whose skin contains an agent used in the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and back pain. The Cape pangolin, a rare species of horny "scaled" mammal, is prized by shamans who use the scales to make charms and talismans. The African wild ass is exploited for blood, meat, and fat, all of which are valued for a variety of curative powers by the Eritreans of northeastern Africa. The green turtle, found in Kenya, is illegally traded for the pharmaceutical effects of its oil and genitalia.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Numerous Chinese medicines are made from the parts of endangered species. The true extent of this trade is unknown—however, informed sources estimate that the industry is worth several billion dollars a year. In Taiwan, for example, rhinoceros horns are twice as valuable as gold. Although no studies have ever demonstrated the medicinal value of rhinoceros horn, numerous Asians believe it has magical curative powers. Rhino populations have declined worldwide as a result of poaching for the medicinal trade.

In the United States, at least 430 different East Asian medicines containing body parts of endangered or threatened species have been documented. According to a study by the World Wildlife Fund, such products are in fact more readily available on store shelves in the United States than in China. The products seen most frequently are tiger bone-containing remedies for arthritis and other muscular ailments. In 1994 the United States passed the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act to curtail trade of these products. A 1998 amendment to the act, the Rhino and Tiger Labeling Law, closed a loophole in the original legislation by empowering the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove products from store shelves based solely on labeling claims and without forensic proof that the content included tiger or rhinoceros parts. The revised statute also established prison terms of up to six months and fines of up to $12,000 for violations. Additionally, the amendment called for the establishment of outreach programs to promote public awareness of this issue.


"Bush meat" refers to meat obtained from wild species. Trade in wild meat threatens numerous species in Africa, South America, and Asia. According to a 2001 report by TRAFFIC, wild meat in Africa is obtained from species such as "elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates, forest antelopes (duikers), crocodiles, porcupines, bush pigs, cane rats, pangolins, monitor lizards, and guinea fowl." Most of the trade occurs on a regional to national scale. However, some meat is exported, particularly to European countries. Officials have seized several illegal shipments at European airports including meat from protected monkeys, pangolins, tortoises, and antelopes. In addition, two London shopkeepers were convicted in 2001 for selling meat from CITES-listed species such as monkeys, savanna monitors, and African pythons. At the 2000 CITES meeting, a group was established to address the issue of unsustainable bush meat exploitation.


The use of animals for scientific and medical research is both common and controversial. Under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) of 1966 and its amendments, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for reporting on species used in research. APHIS reported that in 2001 over 1.2 million animals were used for research purposes in the United States. (See Figure 10.3.) However, this figure does not include rats, mice, birds, or farm animals used exclusively in agricultural research, as the AWA does not require that these be tracked. The AWA requires that animals kept for research purposes be treated humanely. However, it places no restrictions on how animals can be used in valid experiments. The law does call for the limitation of pain and suffering if doing so will not interfere with the experiment.

For decades, some animal rights organizations have protested the use of animals in research. Activists argue that the vast majority of animal research, if not all of it, is cruel and unnecessary. Activists also argue that, despite laws like the AWA, many research animals live in inhumane environments. Although large-scale animal research continues, animal rights and anti-cruelty organizations have had some successes. Many businesses have stopped testing their products on animals and advertise them as "cruelty-free."

Most animal research is conducted on domesticated species, whose numbers are adequate to support this use. A major exception, however, is the primates.

Research and the Primate Trade

The primate trade dates back thousands of years. Mesopotamians used monkey bones to make drugs, and Egyptians trained baboons to harvest figs. Today, however, primates are particularly valued by medical researchers because they are closely related to humans. Because of this, primates such as chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys are regularly used for medical, chemical, and even nuclear testing. In 2001 scientists in the United States used 49,382 primates for research. (See Figure 10.3.)

According to CITES, 40,000 primates are traded internationally every year for biomedical research. Most of this takes place in industrial nations—the United States, United Kingdom, and Japan are the top primate-importing countries. While the results of this research are sometimes of medical value, numerous animals suffer, and many primate populations are in severe decline. All non-human primate species are listed under either CITES Appendix I (Species in Danger of Extinction) or Appendix II (Species Threatened in the Absence of Trade Controls).

The discovery of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the 1980s made primates, particularly chimpanzees, even more valuable to the medical research industry. Pressure on chimpanzee populations due to collection for medical research prompted primatologists to petition the Fish and Wildlife Service to upgrade chimpanzees from threatened to endangered. Fearing opposition from the medical community, the Fish and Wildlife Service compromised, declaring in 1990 that wild chimpanzees in their natural range in Central and West Africa would be listed as endangered, while captive populations outside the natural range would be listed as threatened.


Since the 1970s most countries harboring wild primate populations have restricted the export of these animals. Indonesia and the Philippines, which once supplied 50 to 80 percent of all internationally traded primates, adopted export bans in 1994. These bans have helped restore native populations. As a result, the demand for primates for medical research is increasingly being met through captive breeding. China has been a major source of captive-bred rhesus monkeys for the United States and Europe since 1988. Barbados, which has the largest monkey colony in the Northern Hemisphere, supplies a steady flow of primates for research purposes. Vietnam has also developed as an export center for captive-bred primates. However, some officials claim that many primates shipped from Vietnam were actually caught in the wild.


TRAFFIC is a leading wildlife trade monitoring network sponsored jointly by the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union (IUCN). It works closely with the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Regarding threatened species, TRAFFIC states its objective as: "To ensure that wildlife trade does not result in the endangerment of any wild animal or plant species." As of 2004, TRAFFIC's priority species included:

  • Elephants—Elephant tusks are highly valuable in the illegal ivory trade.
  • Tigers—Tiger bones and other parts are used in traditional Asian medicine. Tiger skins are also valuable in illegal markets.
  • Tibetan antelope—This species is poached for its precious wool, known as shahtoosh.
  • Sharks—The highly endangered whale sharks are hunted for meat, fins, liver, skin, and cartilage.
  • Marine turtles—Demand for meat, eggs, and turtle shells has resulted in the overexploitation of numerous species, including the Caribbean hawksbill turtle.
  • Rhinos—Rhinoceros are poached for their horns, which are used in traditional Asian medicine.
  • Sturgeon—Sturgeon are overexploited for their eggs, which make up the luxury food caviar, as well as for their meat.
  • Freshwater turtles—The number of critically endangered freshwater turtle species has increased rapidly in the early 2000s. Softshell turtles represent a luxury food in Asia, and turtle shells are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
  • Mahogany—Mahogany tree species are exploited for timber that is used to make furniture, boats, musical instruments, expensive wood paneling, and other products.
  • Agarwood—Agarwood is the fragrant heartwood of certain tree species and is used for medicine, perfume, and incense in Ayurvedic, Tibetan, and traditional East Asian medicine.

TRAFFIC also listed the following priority ecoregions in 2004:

  • Asian forests
  • Southeast Asian mangroves
  • Lower Mekong Basin
  • Russian Far East
  • Eurasia-Central Asia
  • Altai-Sayan region
  • East African coastal marine environments
  • East African coastal forests
  • North America's Chihuahuan Desert
  • North America's high arctic
  • Amazonian flooded forests
  • Amazonian freshwater environments
  • The Andes


The United States—A Consuming Giant

In 1994 the Fish and Wildlife Service reported that U.S. wildlife trade represented a $20 billion market, including an estimated $5 billion in illegal trade—this is despite U.S. claims to leadership in the protection of threatened plant and animal species. Although the U.S. undeniably has some of the most promising legislation in the world regarding wildlife trade, the insatiable demand of American consumers, plus inadequate resources for law enforcement, has created a booming trade. The most alarming aspect of this trade is Americans' desire for exotic birds—particularly Amazonian parrots, African gray parrots, and Indonesian cockatoos—precisely those bird species most endangered by trade.

Bird smuggling is a particular problem along the Texas-Mexico border. In 1994 federal officials uncovered what they believed to be one of the nation's largest parrot-smuggling operations and seized $70,000 worth of smuggled birds from a Mexican gang. However, this represented only a tiny part of a huge smuggling market responsible for the illegal importation of between 25,000 and 150,000 birds each year. In 1996 a parrot expert named Tony Silva was convicted of smuggling $1.4 million worth of endangered parrots. This included the highly endangered hyacinth macaw, of which only 2,000–5,000 individuals remain in the wild. Because of their rarity, hyacinth macaws are valued at $12,000 each by unscrupulous collectors. In 1997 Adolph Pare of Miami, Florida was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $300,000 for attempting to smuggle 4,000 African gray parrots illegally collected in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) into the United States. He had obtained fake CITES permits for the parrots.

In 1996 the Fish and Wildlife Service also uncovered an illegal trade operation involving bald eagles. The investigation culminated in the arrest of eight men. Citations were also issued against eight tourist shops in the Four Corners region of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, where bald eagle carcasses were being sold for $1,000 apiece. FWS also reported that more than 60 bald and golden eagles were shot or trapped that winter to feed the demand for feathers, wings, tails, and talons. Numerous tourist centers were fined for selling eagle feathers, prohibited under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. This law, originally passed in 1940, prohibits all trade in bald and golden eagle parts without a permit. A 1972 amendment to the act raised the maximum fine for some crimes to half a million dollars.

Asia and the Pacific Rim—A Black Hole for Endangered Species

The failure of some Asian countries—particularly China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—to curtail illegal trade has combined with economic growth in the Far East to produce a huge demand for numerous endangered species and their products. Although some effort has recently been made to enforce CITES regulations within Asia, officials have had difficulty combating entrenched organized crime networks. Nor are cultural habits, such as the use of endangered species products in many traditional Chinese medicines, easily changed.


With a population in excess of 1.29 billion in 2004, China has become one of the world's largest consumers of wildlife and endangered species. The massive growth in wildlife consumption in China is matched by growth in the export and import of endangered species, their parts, and medicines derived from them. Despite the threat of sanctions by CITES and the United States, the Chinese government has largely turned its back on the growing illegal trade. Furthermore, corruption is widespread. A number of investigations have revealed the involvement of government stores and officials in the sale of restricted products.


Indonesia legally exports between 58,000 and 91,000 birds each year, primarily cockatoos, lories, and other psittacines (birds belonging to the parrot family). Countless others are exported illegally. Approximately 126 avian species native to Indonesia are threatened because of trade or habitat destruction. In July 2003, the World Parrot Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting threatened birds worldwide, reported that the Indonesian government had pledged to ban the export of parrots illegally captured in the wild.


With a population in excess of 127 million in 2004, Japan has one of the highest per capita levels of wildlife consumption in the world. Japan also persists in aggressively campaigning for increased consumption of some types of endangered wildlife. At the 2000 meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), for example, it joined forces with Norway in an effort to eliminate bans against commercial whaling. Moreover, Japan has lobbied CITES for increased wildlife trade. Japan's population of black bears is listed on CITES Appendix I, and its brown bear on Appendix II. Domestic trade in bears (not regulated by CITES, which only deals with international trade) is nonetheless both legal and completely unregulated. Up to one-fifth of Japan's black bear population is killed each year.


In the late 1990s Vietnam was one of the worst offenders in the trade of rare and endangered species. Although the country joined CITES in 1994, little change resulted in the absence of rigid enforcement policies. As other countries in Southeast Asia tightened controls on wildlife smuggling, Vietnam welcomed trade and turned itself into the largest endangered species market in the world. In market stalls in Ho Chi Minh City, a wide variety of wildlife, both dead and alive, fills the streets.

The Americas


Argentina is one of the world's largest suppliers of wild psittacines (birds related to parrots), shipping between 63,000 and 183,000 individuals each year and threatening the continued survival of numerous species. The extent of illegal traffic is difficult to determine. In addition, tree-felling, a method for collecting young birds from nests, is causing extensive habitat destruction. The blue-fronted Amazon parrot accounts for 27 percent of the country's bird trade.


Guyana officially exports between 15,000 and 19,000 birds each year, including some valuable macaws. The country ranks, along with Senegal, Tanzania, Argentina, and Indonesia, among the top five exporters of wild birds for the international market. National legislation in Guyana allows for the capture of any species, regardless of its conservation status, and inspectors have documented the trade of dozens of rare scarlet macaws.



Poachers trap or shoot gorillas for their heads, which are sold as trophies to tourists, and their hands, which are sold as ashtrays. In Nigeria, more lowland gorillas are being killed each year than are being born, creating an imminent threat of extinction for this species.


Despite protests from animal rights groups, commercial sealing endures as a flagship industry in Namibia, where the penises of baby seal pups are sold as aphrodisiacs to markets in the Far East. Sealskin is also used for shoes, wallets, and accessories. Large-scale sealing, a successful industry in the job-starved Namibian economy, brings approximately $500,000 into that country each year.


Senegal exports between 1 and 10 million birds each year and derives approximately 65 percent of the value of its bird exports from a single species, the African gray parrot. This species does not occur naturally in Senegal but is imported from other African countries for trading with third parties.


Tanzania supplies the international market with a variety of songbirds, including the popular Fischer's lovebird, a native species whose numbers have declined drastically. Tanzania exports somewhere between 200,000 and 3 million birds per year. Despite government attempts to control trade, protected species are routinely exported.


The Lacey Act

In the United States, the indiscriminate slaughter of wildlife in the nineteenth century brought about the extinction of numerous species. The Lacey Act was passed in 1900 and represented the first national conservation law. The Lacey Act prohibited interstate transport of wildlife killed in violation of a state law, and also allowed individual states to prohibit import of wildlife or their products even if killed lawfully. For example, egret plumes taken in a state where the bird was protected could not be shipped to other states; in addition, a state could outlaw entry of the plumes even if collection was legal in the exporting state. In 1908 the scope of the Lacey Act was expanded to include wildlife imported from abroad. The Lacey Act contributed to the elimination of the meat markets where the last Labrador ducks were sold, and of the plume trade that nearly led to extinction for the snowy and common egrets as well as other water birds.

Two comprehensive amendments to the Lacey Act in 1981 and 1988 added important new restrictions and increased the fines for illegal trade of wildlife. The amended Lacey Act now covers all CITES- and state-protected species. Its regulations apply to species, their parts, and products made from them. Illegal import or export of wildlife-related contraband is now a federal crime. The amended Lacey Act also makes it illegal to provide guide or outfitting services for would-be poachers. The Lacey Act authorizes fines and jail time for offenders. Fines and penalties, authorized at $10,000 maximum by the amendment of 1981, were increased more than tenfold by the Criminal Fines Improvement Act of 1987, with penalty limits now as high as $250,000 for misdemeanors and $500,000 for felonies. Lacey Act enforcement agents are authorized to carry firearms under the amended act, and rewards are authorized for those who provide tips to law enforcement.

The North American Free Trade Agreement

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1993 by the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Its goal was to remove trade barriers among the three nations by eliminating most tariffs, investment restrictions, and quotas. Conservationists feared that the passage of NAFTA would weaken U.S. species and environmental protection laws. This had resulted earlier from the signing of another free trade agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Under GATT, laws for wildlife protection were sometimes judged to be "technical barriers to trade." For example, in 1991, Mexico used GATT to successfully challenge U.S. tuna-import restrictions intended to protect dolphins. Similarly, U.S. loggers successfully sued under GATT to prevent the British Columbian government from subsidizing the replanting of forests, arguing that it was an unfair subsidy for Canadian loggers.

The Environmental Investigation Agency, a watch-group for environmental issues, concluded that NAFTA's elimination of trade barriers would stimulate the already high demand for wildlife products from Mexico. It added that trade liberalization among the U.S., Mexico, and Canada would result in increased border crossings, facilitating illegal trade and placing an even greater burden on overworked FWS inspectors and agents.

The World Trade Organization

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is a global trade association that promotes trade among nations and possesses broad authority to rule on trade disputes. The original WTO agreements were signed at Marrakech, Morocco in April 1994. As of April 2004 the organization included 147 member nations.

Environmentalists have frequently been critical of the WTO, charging that it is unconcerned about environmental issues when these conflict with trade and development. Conservationists also fear that the WTO could force the U.S. to back down on environmentally friendly laws that restricted trade, just as GATT had done. This fear was realized when India, Thailand, Pakistan, and Malaysia petitioned the WTO on U.S. shrimp import legislation. In particular, these countries objected to U.S. laws prohibiting importation of shrimp from countries without turtle excluder device (TED) regulations for the protection of endangered sea turtles. In April 1998 the WTO ruled that the U.S. laws were discriminatory. Conservation groups called on the U.S. government to defy the WTO decision, fearing the environment would take a back seat whenever a direct conflict arose with free trade. The United States attempted a compromise, requiring environmentally friendly fishing practices from foreign nations only when shrimp was earmarked for export to the United States.

A similar compromise was proposed with regard to dolphin-safe tuna fishing, and the federal government agreed to disregard its own policy in order to maintain its standing in the WTO. Critics alleged that the United States had placed the fate of the American environment in the hands of other nations. Many critics considered the move a serious blow to environmental protection.

In the wake of these decisions, a series of WTO meetings held in Seattle, Washington from November 29 through December 4, 1999, erupted in massive civil unrest. Over 50,000 protesters from around the globe participated, protesting vehemently against diverse policies of the WTO, including its attitudes towards the environment, human rights, sweatshops, labor unions, wages, and the price and quality of food. Special-interest groups engaged in the protests included the Humane Society, the Sierra Club, the Center for Science and the Public Interest, Global Exchange, the United Auto Workers, and numerous others. An estimated $6 million in damages resulted from the demonstrations, and over 600 protesters were arrested. The WTO meeting was entirely shut down, if only temporarily.


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international treaty established to regulate commerce in wildlife. CITES, first ratified in 1975, was developed to block both the import and export of endangered species as well as to regulate trade in vulnerable species. CITES maintains three levels of control. Appendix I, the most stringent, includes species that are in immediate danger of extinction. CITES generally prohibits international trade of these species. Appendix II lists species that are likely to become in danger of extinction without strict protection from international trade. Permits may be obtained for the trade of Appendix II species only if trade will not harm the survival prospects of the species in the wild. Appendix III includes species identified by individual countries as being subject to conservation regulations within its borders.

CITES is generally regarded as the most important legislation regulating trade in endangered or vulnerable species. The treaty nations hold a meeting, called a Conference of Parties (or COP), approximately every two to three years. There were 164 member nations party to CITES in 2004.

Among the most hotly contested topics at the 2000 CITES meeting (COP 11) was the listing status of the African elephant. The African elephant population, which stabilized during the 1990s after a drastic 20-year decline, served as an example of the beneficial nature of CITES protection. Indeed, some wildlife experts surmised that the market for ivory products in North America and Western Europe evaporated after CITES imposed a ban on ivory trafficking in 1989, and that the Japanese market for these products dropped by 50 percent. The error of that assumption was exposed, however, following the 1997 CITES conference in Harare, Zimbabwe. When delegates at that conference authorized the export of 60 tons of stockpiled ivory from three African countries—Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia—the ivory sold for over $5 million on the international market. This occurred in 1999. Soon after, ivory poaching increased more than fourfold in Kenya. Tanzania and Zimbabwe reported increases in illegal elephant slaughter as well.

In 2000 South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana once again petitioned CITES for authorization to sell stockpiled ivory. In addition, these nations declared that they were now overrun by elephants because of the ivory ban and petitioned for the approval of a culling system in which elephants from overpopulated areas would be moved to less populated regions. The South African contingency requested an allowance for some trade, both in ivory and in elephant leather. In the ongoing debate, India and Kenya responded by petitioning for a total ban on elephant ivory trade. India and Kenya also proposed that the elephant be moved to CITES Appendix I. In the end, the opposing factions reached a compromise in which both proposals were withdrawn—elephants remained listed under Appendix II, and the ban on ivory sales remained in effect.

At CITES' COP 12 meeting (held in Santiago, Chile in November 2002), member nations adopted trade controls for a number of new species which were added to CITES Appendix II. These included:

  • mahogany, which suffers from overexploitation for timber
  • whale sharks and basking sharks, which are hunted for the meat, fins, and liver oil
  • 26 species of Asian turtles, which are exploited for traditional Asian medicine, the pet trade, and for food
  • all 32 seahorse species, which are declining due to overexploitation for the aquarium market and for traditional medicines, fishing practices, and pollution

The listing of the two shark species was considered a landmark decision because CITES had not previously addressed fisheries. In addition, species of parrots, chameleons, orchids, and frogs were transferred from Appendix II to Appendix I due to their continued decline. In the continuing battle over ivory sales, CITES also conditionally approved a narrow range of future ivory sales. These can only take place after studies on elephant poaching and population sizes are complete.

CITES has a number of shortcomings. First, many countries lack the funds and expertise to determine the endangerment status of their species. As a result, numerous species that require protection have yet to be listed with the convention. Some experts also argue that CITES listing serves to advertise a species' rarity, thereby boosting its trade. However, the primary criticism of CITES is that its regulations are notoriously difficult to enforce. Wildlife protection organizations such as TRAFFIC estimate that 30 percent of the total value of the global wildlife trade occurs in violation of either CITES or national laws. Other problems include the absence of laws to implement CITES, weak penalties for violators, and widespread corruption among public officials. Many nations are not even party to the CITES convention, making them potential wildlife bazaars where animals and plants illegally exported from CITES nations can be "laundered." Numerous biologically rich nations have not signed the CITES treaty. Finally, CITES addresses only trade across international borders. It does not address the problem of trade within countries, which is detrimental to many endangered and vulnerable species.


The campaign to save endangered whales has perhaps made greater progress than any other international effort to protect endangered species. In 1946, long before the creation of CITES, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established to regulate whaling. The IWC, a loosely governed consortium, included fifty-two nations in 2004. The primary function of the IWC is to conserve whale stocks through measures such as: the complete protection of endangered whale species; designation of whale sanctuaries; limiting of the numbers and sizes of whales that can be taken; designation of open and closed seasons for whaling; and prohibition of takes of whale calves as well as females accompanied by calves. Unfortunately, the IWC is powerless to enforce its resolutions, and depends largely on international pressure and the enforcement policies of individual nations. Member countries that are unwilling to comply with restrictions imposed by any IWC agreement may refuse to participate or may simply quit the IWC.

In order to protect dwindling whale populations, the IWC began by setting quotas on whale kills. As populations continued to decline, however, the IWC declared a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, with certain exceptions. In 1994 the IWC banned whaling within the 11 million square miles around Antarctica, an area called the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. The sanctuary, which must be reauthorized at ten-year intervals, is intended to create a safe harbor for the 90 percent of world whales that feed there. There is also an IWC whale sanctuary in the Indian Ocean, originally established in 1979. At the IWC conference in 2002, Mexico, which boasts a large whale watching industry, declared it would establish a 1.15 million square mile whale sanctuary along Mexican coastal waters in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Despite international pressure to obey the moratorium on commercial whaling, Japan, Norway, Russia, and Iceland, among other nations, continue to whale. Additionally, although the IWC has condemned whaling for research purposes, it nonetheless tolerates a self-allocated annual kill for research. Japan, which, along with Norway, continues to campaign for the reinstatement of commercial whaling, has killed numerous whales under the auspices of research. In 2002 Japan allocated itself a research quota of 700 whales, including 590 minke whales, 10 sperm whales, 50 Bryde's whales, and 50 sei whales. Selling the whale meat, Japan claims, is required by a commission rule prohibiting the waste of research byproducts. The IWC condemned this as a thinly veiled ruse to continue commercial whaling, and called on Japan to use non-lethal research methodologies. Moreover, some environmentalist groups charge that this "research" trade provides a cover for illegal trade in the meat of protected species. In 1997, Earthtrust, a conservation group based in Hawaii, announced the results of several years of tests on whale meat obtained from Japanese markets and restaurants. DNA tests revealed that a large proportion were from endangered species such as humpback and blue whales, rather than from "research" specimens. The Earthtrust project involved conservation biologists Steve Palumbi of Harvard University and C. Scott Baker of the University of Auckland. The illegal trade in whale meat—which brings in as much as $300 per pound—is hypothesized to involve large organized crime groups in Japan.

At the IWC meeting in 2003, Japan continued to argue that whales deplete fisheries, a claim not substantiated by patterns of fish catch in recent years. Norway has also objected to the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling and set itself a quota of 711 whales in 2003. Much of the Norwegian catch ends up being sold in Japan. In addition, Japanese and Taiwanese companies have been caught smuggling large amounts of whale meat.

Subsistence Whaling

In response to the IWC's moratorium on whaling, several groups—including the Makah of Washington State, the Inuits of Alaska (formerly known as Eskimos), and the Chukchi of Siberia—requested a special exemption to hunt bowhead whales, arguing that whales were necessary for their subsistence, in addition to being a significant part of their culture and tradition. These hunts have occurred for over 8,000 years. Critics of the exemptions argued that these groups were no longer dependent on whaling for food. Furthermore, critics charged that traditional whaling in these cultures had involved spears—resulting in a much smaller kill than is possible today with harpoon guns. The IWC granted permission for aboriginal subsistence whaling in 1997 but also established quotas to limit the annual take. In particular, only 280 whales could be taken in a five-year period, with no more than 67 takes in a single year. Since then, subsistence hunting permits have also been issued to Greenlanders (for fin whales and minke whales) as well as inhabitants of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (for humpback whales).

In 2002 the IWC rejected the United States' request that Alaskan Inuits be allowed to continue their whale hunts. The U.S. had requested fifty-five bowhead whales over a period of five years. This was the first time aboriginal hunting quotas were denied. The decision was attributed in the U.S. press to Japanese retaliation—the U.S. had led efforts against allowing Japanese coastal whaling towns to hunt a total of fifty minke whales.

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Commercial Trade of Wildlife

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