The Illegal Wildlife Trade: How Does Poaching Affect Us?

A shopkeeper selling goods obtained from poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.

The illegal wildlife trade is booming – from ivory carvings and rhino horns in traditional medicine to exotic roadside zoos in rural Louisiana.

But just how common is poaching, and how exactly does it impact the environment?

The truth is, you may be involved without even knowing it.

It all boils down to an issue of economics, with both wildlife buyers and sellers complicit; this barbaric trade is helping destroy what little is left of the natural world.

Poaching is a complicated topic, so let’s start off by going over some of the most common ways in which it occurs:

What is poaching?

The definition of poaching is going to change slightly depending on who you ask, but some aspects of it remain the same no matter where you are in the world. On a basic level, animal poaching refers to the intentional or unintentional violation of wildlife laws.

A US Fish and Wildlife Service inspector reviewing a selection of confiscated poached pelts.

Animal trafficking networks span the globe, covering all continents and involving quite a complex network of individuals working together to profit from lucrative sales.

Black market deals are the norm, but the method in which live specimens or animal and plant parts are acquired depends on the species being trafficked. In some cases, only a specific part of an animal is traded – sometimes just single organs or ornaments.

Illegal hunting may not seem like a big deal, but the limits of many wild animals and plants already struggling to keep up with climate change are being tested because of it.

What are some common poaching examples?

Hunting is something most people are familiar with, but hunting and poaching are entirely different things – most of the time, it’s not only about meat.

Poaching animals for bushmeat. As the most common type of poaching, the bushmeat trade is also one of survival for many people. In developing regions of the world, millions of people rely on protein-rich meals that they hunt themselves or purchase from others to meet their daily needs.

Compared to just a few decades ago, many of these food sources have already vanished, complicating the enforcement of anti-poaching laws in some countries.

Using animal parts for traditional medicine. Traditional medicine – a broad term used to describe different kinds of herbal and animal-based treatments for disease – is another major driver of illegal poaching. The World Health Organization (WHO) has a detailed plan of action they follow in an attempt to curb the use of endangered species in medicine, as up to 80% of people rely on traditional medicine in some areas of the world.

A container of dried seahorses ready for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
Image by Tom Heath via Flickr

The extent of these operations are super widespread, especially in some areas of Asia, to the point where you can find products being sold in Australia that contain the DNA of snow leopards and tigers – critically endangered species that live thousands of miles away.

Selling ornaments, jewelry, pelts, and trinkets. Sometimes, wildlife crimes are committed simply because someone wants something pretty to decorate their house or body with. Taxidermied specimens, horns and tusks, furs and feathers; there’s really no end to the ways in which careless individuals support the illegal animal trade.

A selection of seized illegal wildlife products setup for education purposes.

The elephant ivory trade is the most famous example of this; surprisingly, the past decade has seen an increase in the illegal ivory trade – even with the criminalization of elephant poaching increasing all over the world.

Unregulated trophy hunting. Regulated trophy hunting is touted as a tool for some conservationists, although both the public and the scientific community is divided on the matter. Moral implications aside, in areas where traditional conservation methods have failed (lots of places), trophy hunting has shown mild success at things like establishing conservation land.

A Somaliland trophy hunter surrounded by an assortment of animal skins and trophies in 1899.

Of course, with human greed knowing no bounds, trophy hunting can easily have the opposite effect. Essentially, if trophy hunting is poorly regulated it can lead to a decline in the population of the hunted species, even if the hunts bring in some short-term profits.

Smuggling animals for the exotic pet trade. The exotic pet trade is another big revenue stream for poachers. Saltwater aquariums, rare reptiles and amphibians, colorful parrots – people want unique and interesting pets.

A Spotted Wood Owl and Buffy Fish Owl relaxing together.
Image by shankar s. via Flickr

Similar to the ivory trade, the exotic pet trade is another arm of the poaching industry that’s increasing alongside global ecological collapse. One of the more bizarre effects of this are problematic, highly invasive populations of escaped pets becoming established in the areas they’re sold in.

Where does poaching occur?

Animals poached in Africa like elephants, rhinos, and lions aren’t the only ones suffering. While many of the more lucrative goods like ivory are found on the continent of Africa, it happens everywhere.

A family unit of forest elephants traveling near the rainforest edge.

Poaching in America, for example, looks a bit different as it involves entirely different animals and ecosystems – but is still defined as the intentional or unintentional breach of wildlife regulations. So even if a hunter accidentally shoots and kills a grizzly bear in a state where it’s illegal, it’s considered poaching.

It also occurs as a satellite industry alongside logging or mining operations in and around important forest ecosystems. Meaning, it’s more or less a spontaneous event that happens as workers tend to their other duties. When it comes to the open seas, animals like sharks can easily wind up caught in a shipping vessel’s nets simply by chance before they’re murdered for their fins and tossed back overboard, due to overfishing.

What animals are illegal to hunt?

International cooperation against animal poaching is one of the more confusing aspects of the topic. Wildlife trafficking laws differ depending on which country you’re in, or even specific areas of individual countries.

Two tiger cubs resting together at the Dreamworld Wildlife Foundation.

There are agreements made between some nations, however. For example, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an agreement made between the members of The World Conservation Union (IUCN) that governs the trade of more than 40,000 plant and animal species.

While CITES serves as a substantial effort to monitor and combat living or dead specimens crossing international borders, the laws within individual countries vary quite a bit. Places like Singapore have extraordinarily strict laws against poaching and hunting or trading animals, with less developed nations often falling a bit short.

If you want specifics, check out the searchable CITES database: Species+

How many animals are poached each year?

Varied guidelines and loose enforcement of poaching means most countries don’t keep complete records of the number of plants and animals being trafficked. Realistically, there’s no way for efforts being made to track these kinds of things to ever be very accurate.

And the number of individuals being killed or sold as pets means less than the percentage of a population. 548 rhinos poached in 2022 takes on a whole new meaning when you consider that only around 27,000 still exist in the wild.

The value of individual species, parts, and pets changes according to the rarity and ease of acquiring them; overall, the yearly estimated value of poaching could be upwards of $20 billion.

How does poaching affect the environment?

The consequences of poaching can be much more severe than they initially appear; sometimes, the true effects of losing individual species can take years to fully appreciate.

Poaching directly reduces species richness. The most obvious impact of wildlife poaching is biodiversity loss, with key species being removed from their natural environments at dazzling speeds. Because this happens alongside other ecological issues like mass deforestation or coral bleaching events, removing large numbers of individual plants or animals can spell disaster for sensitive ecosystems.

Biodiversity loss speeds up climate change. One of the most concerning climate tipping points is the loss of biodiversity. Beavers are an excellent example of a keystone species; trapped and hunted nearly to extinction in a mad rush for fashionable pelts, hats, and gland-based perfume – these ecosystem engineers used to maintain huge ranges in North America and Eurasia.

A beaver swimming near its dam with a stick in tow.

In one study, just two individual Eurasian beavers – when reintroduced to a wooded site – were capable of both increasing water storage reserves and reducing the flow of pollution runoff from nearby monoculture farming operations.

Trapping animals is indiscriminate. The methods used to catch animals aren’t always very sophisticated, leading to the injury or death of non-target animals. For example, chimpanzees are often caught in snares set to catch animals like pigs and antelope, resulting in the loss of limbs and lives for those unlucky enough to wander by.

The violence can even spill over into human lives as well, with chimpanzee populations pushed to the brink due to unstable power dynamics – scavenging and attacking villagers in rural Uganda.

How does poaching affect humans?

Illegal wildlife trafficking funds criminal organizations. The funds collected from abusing wildlife contributes to the spread of organized crime. Industries like mining, logging, and poaching are intertwined and often involve the exchange of weapons or even drugs.

USFWS workers handling ivory seized at the US border.
Image by USFWS via Flickr

Communities that depend on these wild animal or plant populations for food are often forced further into poverty or resort to crime in order to support themselves. In fact, some of your favorite foods and products from the rainforest may even be supported by these kinds of operations.

Dangerous human diseases are linked to the illegal wildlife trade. Bushmeat, wet markets, and unregulated hunting operations have all been implicated in the spread of disease between animals and humans. Infections like HIV, SARS, H1N1 (swine flu), and even COVID-19 are all suspected to have originated in non-human animals.

Poaching and trafficking animals normalizes violence. One of the more abstract consequences to all of this is that treating other living beings as transactions cheapens our relationship with them. The reality is, animals have cultures developed over countless generations – slaughtering them just to grind them into a medicinal paste encourages a harmful mindset that dismisses the idea of their individuality entirely.

What is being done to stop poaching?

So, is it possible to stop poachers from destroying natural habitats?

As individuals, it may seem as simple as not engaging in animal smuggling or visiting roadside tiger zoos. Commendable behavior for sure, but these kinds of things aren’t very relevant in most of our lives anyways. Let’s go over some of the more comprehensive ways you can help:

Avoid making the problem worse while traveling. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has a decent list of travel recommendations for those who want to avoid supporting poachers. Start by avoiding these common animal-based products:

  • Jewelry, trinkets, and good look charms
  • Animal leather boots, handbags, and clothing
  • Furs, pelts, feathers, and horns
  • Shells, corals, and exotic pets
  • Traditional medicine and cosmetics

Support organizations fighting wildlife crime. Becoming a member of, or donating funds to the organizations actively fighting the illegal trade of animals takes things a step further. The World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Stop Wildlife Crime campaign, as well as the AZA’s Wildlife Trafficking Alliance are good places to start.

Léonard She Okitundu presenting in London at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in 2018.
Image by FCDO via Flickr

Like we mentioned before, CITES is the go-to regulatory body in the world of poaching. Organizations like these are the force behind the adoption of new laws against poaching, working alongside agencies like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to combat trafficking all over the world.

Keep the big picture in mind. Wealth and income inequality is the ultimate driver of the illegal wildlife trade; which means the individuals and regions implicated in these crimes are often being exploited themselves. While it’s easy to blame those trafficking and poaching animals, most of them would prefer to be doing something else if possible.

70% of the world earns less than $30,000 per year, with half of the planet earning under $12,000. As long as people remain disenfranchised, the flow of illegal goods will remain. Educating yourself on topics like sustainable agriculture, the empowerment of women, and the value of ecotourism based on ecosystem services will go a long way in changing your perceptions of our current predicament.

Final thoughts

The illegal wildlife trade isn’t as simple as tiger pelts and elephant ivory – the reality of the industry runs much deeper than it first appears.

Being aware of how globalization has changed the ways we interact with the wild plants and animals around us is the first step in taking individual action towards ending the age of poaching.

How has poaching affected your life?

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