Trade and Endangered Species

Along with habitat destruction, wildlife crimes such as poaching currently pose the largest threat to the future of some of the world’s most endangered species.

Wildlife and the Law

In 1973 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was formed. The purpose of CITES is to decide the species that  are beingtraded which are in danger of becoming extinct and to establish laws to stop them from being pushed any closer to extinction by international trade. There are now 183 member countries and their representatives meet every two to three years for discussions and to decide whether any changes are needed. Environmental organisations can attend the conferences to contribute to the debates and to lobby the delegates.

When a country joins CITES, its government must pass laws to control or prohibit trade in live or dead specimens and parts or derivatives of them. The amount of trade allowed depends on which 'Appendix' (group) the species has been listed in. Any member country can put forward a species for listing, or changing to another appendix, but for this proposal to be adopted, two thirds of the delegates must vote for it. A proposal is usually a scientific report summarising the best available information on the status of the species and the impact of trade on it. The Convention cannot control trade between two countries who are not CITES members, but fortunately the number of member countries is slowly increasing year by year. 

There are three appendices:

Appendix I

trade is totally banned for primarily commercial purposes.

Appendix II

potentially threatened species for which trade is allowed if there is "no detriment" to the species: quotas (the numbers of individuals traded) may be imposed.

Appendix III

species requiring additional protection in their country of origin

Enforcing the law

This is a difficult problem, especially when officials responsible for the enforcement don't take it seriously - and this happens all too often. Even CITES does not have a Law Enforcement Working Group. It is expensive to enforce a law and yet a law is useless unless it can be enforced. 

Smuggling i.e. illegal trading, is not easy to control. It is easier to stop a poverty-stricken poacher than a rich, influential business executive, or, worse still, a corrupt government official. It is also difficult for customs officers to identify protected species in a big shipment of animals and plants,  especially as they are often hidden or disguised. Recognising illegal products such as ivory is a difficult task, even for experts, who sometimes need to conduct forensic tests to tell ivory apart from realistic plastic copies. Plant species can also be hard for non experts to recognise, making it tricky to pick out illegal specimens from amongst a selection. 

Of all the hundreds of species of animals and plants involved in international trading laws, amongst some of the best known examples are: big cats; whales and elephants for their ivory; rhinos; bears; parrots and songbirds; apes; and rainforest plants.  International networks of smugglers work to move these illegal specimens across borders. Although it is nearly impossible to calculate how much money is made every year by trafficking endangered animals and their body parts, TRAFFIC, the worldwide network set up to monitor wildlife trade, estimates that it amounts to billions of dollars. In fact, being listed by CITES has been known to drive the market value of a species up, making it even more valuable to poachers.

Case History - Tigers


Fifty years ago there were eight subspecies of tiger, but three are now extinct. Today, all five remaining subspecies are endangered. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are as few as 3,800 tigers left in the wild today, together with a further 7,000 in captivity. Many of the places breeding tigers claim to be zoos or conservation facilities but are, in fact, farms that sell the tigers to smugglers for huge profits. Tiger numbers are also declining because of the loss of their forest habitat and a shortage of prey.

All species of tiger are in demand by Eastern countries because of their belief that tiger bones, claws, teeth and most other body parts have medicinal properties. China, South Korea and Taiwan are the main consumers, but tiger products are also exported to Chinese communities in the rest of the world. China's own tigers are almost extinct so traders have turned to tigers in other countries and much illegal smuggling goes on.  Penalties for smuggling are very varied from country to country. In China, people found to be trafficking tigers are sent to prison, but in Indonesia, the same crime may meet with a only small fine. 

Tigers are also sought after all over the world for their beautiful pelts, which are in demand for use as rugs and as hunting trophies.  They are also kept in countries such as the US as exotic pets. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 tigers may be living illegally in captivity in the United States.

Trade laws

Most countries where tigers live in the wild have laws protecting them, but they are often poorly enforced. Tigers are on Appendix I of CITES but of the fourteen countries,which include China, India, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Russia and Japan five have yet to join CITES.  They areBhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and North Korea. However, these five, together with the CITES members, have voluntarily pledged to stop international trade in tiger products and, within their countries, to ban the use of tiger bone in traditional medicine.

The future

The countries where tigers can be found have formed the Global Tiger Forum to discuss ways of working together to help tiger populations recover. The countries party to CITES have also committed to ending legal as well as illegal tiger farming, as it has been found to stimulate the demand for tiger parts. Hopefully, the Global Tiger Forum's discussions will bring about effective enforcement. Conservation organisations have set up projects to try and control poaching and to win the support of people who live in  areas where tigers live, and to persuade people to use alternatives to traditional tiger-based medicines. The Wildlife Protection Society of India is working to dissuade gangs of poachers by offering rewards for any information leading to an arrest.

Case History: Pangolins

A shy, ant-eating creature, covered in scales, the pangolin curls into a ball when threatened, forming a suit of ‘armour’ from its scales. Ironically, the very body part designed to keep the pangolin safe from attack is leading to its decline. Demand for pangolin scales for use in traditional medicines has made this creature the most trafficked non human mammal in the world.  TRAFFIC estimate that one million pangolins were smuggled illegally between 2000 and 2013. 

Pangolin scales, which are made of keratin, (the same material that makes rhino horns as well as our hair and fingernails) are offered in Chinese and other Eastern cultures as cures for everything from eating disorders to arthritis. In Vietnam, it is possible to obtain a prescription for the scales. 

Restaurants also serve pangolin meat to customers who pay extra for a chance to eat a rare and endangered creature. The animals are often killed at the table so diners can see how fresh they are.  

In Africa, pangolin meat and body parts are believed to convey many powers such as the ability to see the future or to protect people from attack. The scales are used to treat a range of illnesses including mental health problems, convulsions, inflammation and rheumatism. 

There are 8 species of Pangolin in the world and all of them are in real trouble. The four species found in Asia are all listed by the IUCN as critically endangered and the four species from Africa are all vulnerable.  As numbers decline in the East, poachers and smugglers are beginning to hunt the African species. Two huge shipments of pangolin scales, each weighing 14 tonnes, were seized in Singapore in 2019. These scales, estimated to have come from around 72,000 pangolins, had been shipped from Nigeria. 

Trade Laws

CITES has placed restrictions on the pangolin market since 1975 and, in 2016, the 186 countries of CITES voted to move the pangolin to Appendix I and completely ban the commercial trade in the creature and its body parts. 

The future

In 2012, the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission formed a Pangolin Specialist Group made up of 100 experts from 25 countries.  Part of the pangolin’s problem was that it was not very well known and wasn’t considered a ‘cute’ animal to protect, so, in 2014 the Commission also set up World Pangolin Day, which falls on on February 15th each year.  Confiscated pangolin scales are sometimes burned in huge numbers to raise awareness and to remove the profits that could have been made from their illegal sale. Another problem for conservationists is that pangolins do not cope well in captivity, suffering from depression and seriously reduced lifespans. It is, therefore, hard to set up appropriate breeding programmes or study opportunities.  The future for the pangolin looks bleak for now.

Photo: John Cummings

Case History - Leopard

Snow leopard

Today, increasing numbers of people would be horrified by the idea of wearing a coat made from the skin of an endangered animal.  Sadly, however, in many parts of the world, there are people who still consider a leopard skin coat to be a status symbol. Such coats may be bought by tourists in a place such as Kathmandu, Nepal, even though the traders are aware that they are likely to be confiscated by customs at the airport. In 2018, a man from Surrey was caught selling clothes on eBay that had been made from recently killed leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard, all endangered species.

Some people regard shooting a leopard, and taking home parts of it as 'trophies', as a very fun thing to do. This 'trophy hunting' has been allowed by CITES in African countries which report leopard numbers to be adequate. These so-called 'sport' hunters are mainly from North America and Europe. 

The latest threat to leopards is an increasing demand for their bones, as a tiger-bone substitute for oriental medicines. Bones are smuggled mainly into China and Taiwan from neighbouring countries.

The leopard is most common in India and Africa, though not nearly so numerous as it once was. The estimated world population of leopards is 250,000. Other species, existing in former Soviet Union, China and the Middle East, are either extremely rare or thought to be extinct. The Snow leopard, from the Himalayas, Tibet, Central Asian Republics and Mongolia is on the brink of extinction with only around 4,000 animals thought to remain in the wild. The Clouded leopard is found in forests of Nepal to South China down to Sumatra, Borneo and Taiwan, but although many skins turn up in China, no estimates of their numbers exist.

Trade laws

All leopard species are listed on Appendix I of CITES. Officially, they are protected everywhere although African countries allow licensed and controlled hunting for trophies. Enforcing the protection laws is difficult, especially where there is conflict with the public in areas where leopards are accused of killing children and cattle. In India, unlike tigers, leopards are not confined to reserves, where they would be well-protected, so enforcing the law is more difficult.

The future

The organisation 'People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' is trying to discourage people around the world from buying furs, and 'Respect for Animals' campaigns against trapping for fur. Other conservation groups investigate the fur trade and promote research and leopard conservation projects. If people no longer wanted to wear leopardskin coats or display 'trophies', then there would be no point in continuing the trade in skins and other parts.

Case History - Plants

Although they are extremely important living organisms, plants are often overlooked when considering endangered species, as animals usually attract more media attention. However, many thousands of species of plants need our help to prevent them from becoming extinct. Many commercial plants are grown in plantations or nurseries, but large numbers are still taken from the wild. Examples are the tropical hardwood trees (such as Rosewood and Mahogany), orchids, cacti and carnivorous plants, such as Venus flytraps. All these plants are removed from the wild either by the timber trade to use as furniture or for people to have as house and garden plants.

Trade laws

There are about 200 plant species listed on Appendix I by CITES. There are thousands more, including all orchids and cacti, on Appendix II. However, enforcement of the law is poor in most countries and many customs officers are not able to identify species in a shipment. Up to date, CITES has managed to list the Caribbean and Central American mahoganies on Appendix II, but fierce opposition by Brazil, Peru and Bolivia has prevented Brazilian mahogany from also being listed - these countries have 90% of the remaining mahogany trees. The most commercially sought after mahogany, Swietenia macrophylla, or Big Leaf Mahogany, is still being exploited and is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. Japan is the biggest consumer of timber and living plants are sold mainly in North America, Europe and Japan.

The future

Various conservation organisations are either investigating the trade in plants or funding field projects. The charity 'Plantlife' has been set up specifically to save plants. Meanwhile, an unusual method has been found for detecting rare plants that have been hidden amongst other samples by smugglers. Giant African pouched rats have been trained to sniff out some hard woods (as well as pangolin scales) even when these have been disguised. If studies are approved, the rats could be put to work at ports, helping to detect illegal trade.


Tiger and Leopard Images: Trade and Endangered Species by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Information sourced from:

CITES [2013], List of Contracting Parties [online],
Available from: https://www.cites.org/eng/disc/parties/chronolo.php [accessed 20/08/2015].

World Wildlife Fund (2021), Illegal Wildlife Trade [online], Available from: https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/illegal-wildlife-trade [accessed 23/1/21].

Traffic (2021), Illegal Wildlife Trade [online], Available from: https://www.traffic.org/about-us/illegal-wildlife-trade  [accessed 23/1/21].

World Wildlife Fund (2015), Tiger [online], Available from: http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/tiger
[accessed 20/08/2015].

National Geographic (2021) Pangolins [online], Available from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/group/pangolins/ [accessed 23/1/21].

BBC, (2019) Pangolins: Rare insight into world's most trafficked mammal, by Helen Briggs, [online], Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-47200816 [accessed 23/1/21].

The Guardian, (2019) Two tigers seized from traffickers every week, report finds, by Damian Carrington, [online], Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/21/tigers-seized-traffickers-report-wildlife-summit   [accessed 23/1/21].

Feline Conservation Federation (2015), Leopard [online], Available from: http://www.felineconservation.org/
feline_species/leopard.htm [accessed 20/08/2015].

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2015), Swietenia macrophylla [online],
Available from: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/32293/0 [accessed 20/08/2015].

What is Meant by a Wildlife Crime?

Humans have always made use of animals and plants to meet their needs. Whether for food and firewood, or clothing and furniture, people have killed animals and cut down trees. When this is done in ways that don’t threaten the future of a wild species, it is not currently seen as a crime.

However, in some cases, humans have taken more animals or plants of a particular species than can be sustained. Some species are being driven to extinction because people are killing them at such a rapid rate. Over the last 30 years or so there has been growing world-wide concern that trade in endangered species should be controlled.  When people hunt endangered animals illegally (called poaching) or when they buy and sell products made from endangered species, this is now considered a wildlife crime.

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