The Illegal Wildlife Trade

Charismatic megafauna such as rhino, elephant and tiger as well as lesser-known mammals like the pangolin, are among the growing list of endangered species imperiled by the illegal wildlife trade. This industrial-scale, transnational crime network has an estimated annual value of $20 billion. Every 22 hours, one rhino is slaughtered for its horn and in 2021 alone, 451 rhinos in South Africa were illegally poached. Every 30 minutes an elephant is killed for its ivory and pangolins are nearing extinction, but it is uncertain how many remain. It’s estimated that every five minutes a pangolin is snatched from the wild.

Pangolins are the most illegally traded mammal on Earth, yet their existence remains virtually obscure outside of biological and conservation sciences spheres. Pangolins are solitary creatures that seek out a diet comprising ants and termites. There are four species in Africa: the black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla); white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis); giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea); and the Temminck’s pangolin (Smutsia temminckii). The four species in Asia include: the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla); Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata); Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica); and Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis). Learn more about the Indian pangolin in our Daily Dose of Nature webinar, Traded to Extinction: Illegal Wildlife Trafficking.

Though not all eight species are nocturnal, their behavioral patterns and life histories remain shrouded in a mysterious veil of darkness. Their elusiveness, coupled with rapidly declining populations make pangolins a challenge to observe and collect scientific data on. Of all the nonhuman animals commodified and traded throughout the world, the pangolin is undoubtedly the most culturally and symbolically coveted. Each culture assigns a different value to the pangolin depending on economic, mythological, medicinal and ritual desires.

A pangolin possesses life-sustaining affordances for marginalized and disenfranchised communities throughout the world. Roughly 800-1,000 scales shield a pangolin’s body and a single scale has enough monetary value to sustain an African or Asian family for a week or more. In eastern Asia, pangolins have been incorporated into Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practices as early as 500 CE. A diversity of cultures believe that pangolins possess healing properties, which can be harnessed by manipulating the scales. Pangolin parts have been used to cure ailments such as malaria, insect bite infections, blood clots, gynecological diseases, asthma and even cancer. In Vietnam and China, serving and consuming pangolin meat is a marker of social status. The rarer the animal, the more impressive the dish is to possess. Wealthy businessmen and government officials consume pangolin soup and pangolin wine to assert dominance and display elitism.

In 2014, all eight species of pangolin were classified: Threatened with Extinction by The IUCN Red List. The Red List categorizes taxa according to their extinction risk, which ranges from Least Concern to Extinct. More aggressive conservation measures were taken in January 2017, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) designated all four African and all four Asian pangolin species under their highest level of protection (Appendix I), which prohibits all international commercial trade in wild specimens.

Despite this declaration, approximately 206.4 tons of pangolin scales were confiscated from 52 seizures between 2016 and 2019. A recent report published by transnational security analysis nonprofit, Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), shows seizures of pangolins reached a record high in 2019 with more than 128 tons of scales and meat being intercepted by law enforcement globally. It is estimated that the trafficked total is considerably higher, as it’s likely a significant portion passes undetected, records can be difficult to acquire and countries vary in their reporting tactics.

An endangered pangolin in Africa.

An endangered pangolin

Wildlife Cybercrime

Though pangolins serve a multitude of consumptive and non-consumptive purposes across African and Asian cultures, there are few people in the United States who are aware of the mammal’s plight—let alone their existence. The United States is one of the largest consumers of illegal wildlife and wildlife products worldwide, with an estimated value of $2 billion annually. Analysis indicates that between 2004 and 2013, 47,914 illegal wildlife products, 81,526 pounds of illegal wildlife and 7,111 illegal animals were seized.

For American consumers with a penchant for exotic leather, pangolins are a commodity of great prestige. Pangolins are coveted in the fashion industry for their unique diamond-shaped skin structure, which is owed to the overlapping keratinous scales that cover most of their body. The CITES Trade Database—which records global trends in trading networks and partners at the species level—unearthed an alarming pattern during the time frame of 1977‒2014. Of the recorded incidents—which amount to 809,723 whole pangolins traded—the United States was identified as the greatest importer of pangolins and their products in both volume and frequency. A cross-examination with the database, Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), evaluated seized shipments and confirmed that the U.S. accounted for approximately 82.5% of the 46% of pangolins traded since 2001.

Further investigations exposed an extensive and complex series of e-commerce trends advertising and selling genuine pangolin leather cowboy boots, belts, wallets and other accessories. In addition to USFWS LEMIS data, which tracked international trade from 1999-2015, analyses through eBay emphasized domestic trends, revealing an estimated 21,411 pangolins involved in 163 pangolin skin imports. The mean price for pangolin products was $544, while the maximum starting price was advertised for around $13,000. A pair of cowboy boots had a maximum starting price of $1800 and required the whole body of a least one pangolin, while a leather handbag required anywhere between two and four bodies.

Lead scientist, Sarah Heinrich, concluded that the United States plays a defining role in the historic decline of pangolins, especially in the years prior to 2000. In conversation with wildlife crime journalist, Sharon Guynup, Defenders of Wildlife President, Jamie Rappaport Clark, implored the American public:

“We must reduce market demands for vulnerable species and their products by educating American consumers about the illegal wildlife trade and it impacts on imperiled species and how our appetites and fashion desires provide the economic fuel for continued poaching and smuggling. No species should be sacrificed to produce a nice pair of boots or an exotic bowl of soup.”

In an effort to combat the trade, the United States signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty, alongside 182 other nations. Paradoxically, the U.S. ranks second globally in consumption of products derived from the illegal wildlife trade after China and is one of seven nations under investigation for tiger trafficking (there are approximately 5-10,000 captive tigers in the U.S. with only 3,900 remaining in the wild). Though the Endangered Species Act outlaws imports of tigers and tiger parts for commercial use, there is no standardized federal law to regulate ownership or public handling. As a result, many states allow for wanton breeding for the purposes of cub petting, posing and trading.

The black market thrives due to its accessibility and anonymity in digital spaces. E-commerce sites, social media platforms and online forums facilitate direct-to-consumer sales—supplying illegally obtained animal artifacts, body parts and exotic pets to meet domestic and international demands. Sellers take advantage of the postal service’s lack of monitoring and security protocols and send shipments via airmail through unmarked packages or under the guise of benign labels. The global connectivity of the Internet allows many cybercrimes to evade detection and makes data collection and surveillance of illicit activity a challenge. Furthermore, legal status is not consistent throughout governing bodies, and federal rulings determine laws that vary by state and country—skewing political boundaries and commodity chains.

These factors contribute to the under-documentation of wildlife trafficking cases, inaccuracy of numerical data, penalty biases and lack of coverage in the media—and thus—lack of public awareness. This is perhaps how thousands of wild turtles from Florida waters are smuggled into China undetected or how migratory songbirds from Miami’s forests are caged and forced into vocal competitions for prizes worth upwards of $10,000. Similarly underreported, was the recent break in a case regarding the transnational “Wu” organization that engaged in wildlife and drug trafficking, shark finning and money laundering operating out of both east and west coasts of the U.S.

Elephant calves in southern Africa.

© Megan Brief

Keeping Wildlife Offline and in the Wild

Fortunately, conservation conveners: World Wildlife Fund, TRAFFIC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) joined forces to help keep wildlife #OfflineAndInTheWild with the creation of The Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. This collaboration aims to unite the tech industry to standardize prohibited wildlife policies, train staff to better detect illicit wildlife products, enhance automated detection filters and educate and empower users to report suspicious listings. Since the launch of the Coalition in 2018, the number of tech companies participating more than doubled from 21 to 47 in 2021 with operations across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Members including Alibaba, eBay, DeineTierwelt, Facebook, Google, TikTok and Tencent, reported removing or blocking over 11.6 million listings for endangered species and associated products from their online platforms to date. These listings included live tigers, reptiles, primates and birds for the exotic pet trade, in addition to products derived from species like elephants, pangolins and marine turtles.

“The volunteers that are trained as part of the Coalition’s Cyber Spotter Program are our extra set of eyes on the web. They are provided with information on priority species and whenever they suspect a violation, they report it to us. After which, we share it with the related platforms for further action,” explains Lionel Hachemin, Wildlife Campaigner at IFAW.

Hear directly from the team that leads the Coalition in our Daily Dose of Nature webinar with Crawford Allan and Giavanna Grein from WWF’s TRAFFIC program. Then, tune in to this engaging presentation given by WWF’s Senior Conservation Engineer, Eric Becker, hosted on our site! His source of inspiration? “Every nerd grows up and wants to change the world. As a lover of gadgets and animals, I saw a place where my skills could be useful to develop new technology to stop the slaughter of elephants, rhinos and other wildlife.” Eric currently researches and develops sensor-based systems to detect poachers in protected areas in Africa and Asia. He also leverages technological advancements to find energy-efficient, low-cost ways to scale up technologies to solve the planet’s most urgent conservation issues.

A gray bird in southern Africa.

© Megan Brief

Conservation Technology 

Some technological innovations within the ever-expanding conservation toolbox include:

  • Thermal Imaging
  • Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning (computer vision)
  • Augmented Reality (AR) & Virtual Reality (VR)
  • UAVs/Drones
  • Satellites
  • Camera Traps
  • Citizen Science
  • Biologgers
  • Mobile Apps
  • GIS/Remote Sensing
  • Bioacoustics & Ecoacoustics
  • Environmental DNA (eDNA)/Genomics
  • Networked Sensors

In December 2021, WILDLABS published a novel report titled, A Global Community-Sourced Assessment of the State of Conservation Technology, to highlight technological implementations that could help reduce the time and resources required to detect wildlife and increase the efficacy of conservation efforts. The researchers surveyed 248 conservationists, technologists and academics across 37 countries over the 11 most commonly used conservation technologies. Artificial intelligence—specifically machine learning and computer vision, environmental DNA (eDNA) and genomics and networked sensors were named the top three emerging conservation technologies perceived as having the highest untapped potentials.

Program Officer at WWF for WILDLABS and corresponding author, Talia Speaker, states:

“To our knowledge, this is the first attempt to formally capture the perspectives and needs of the global conservation technology community, providing foundational data that can serve as a benchmark to measure progress. We see tremendous potential for this community to further the vision they define, in which collaboration trumps competition; solutions are open, accessible, and interoperable; and user-friendly processing tools empower the rapid translation of data into conservation action.”

  • Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly being used in the field to analyze information collected by wildlife conservationists; citizen scientists; camera trap, drone and satellite images; and bioacoustic audio recordings to improve wildlife identification and monitoring.

The Lion Identification Network of Collaborators uses facial recognition techniques to monitor population levels. Identification involves taking a high-quality photo and zooming in on identifying features like whisker spots. This technology helps reduce reliance on expensive and ill-fitting GPS monitors, which can have limited battery life and be invasive to the animals. Similar technology is being implemented by researchers from the Wild Nature Institute to study Maasai giraffes suffering from habitat loss and illegal hunting. Pattern–recognition technology trained to identify unique markings on a giraffe’s torso can now process images in minutes—a task that previously took conservationists weeks. The Elephant Listening Project is helping protect tropical forest elephants in Africa. Teams at Cornell University, with assistance from Conservation Metrics, are using AI to identify and analyze recordings of elephant calls, helping to create an “elephant dictionary” by matching noises to behavior.

The cloud-based platform Wildbook, uses computer vision and deep learning algorithms to sort through millions of crowdsourced (derived from social media) images to identify animals based on their unique patterns (stripes, spots and scars). Wildbook was initially created to track whale sharks but the platform has since grown into a vast database of species including sea turtles, manta rays, sharks, whales, dolphins, big cats, giraffes and zebras. In partnership with Microsoft’s AI for Earth initiative, Wildbook is hosted on the cloud computing service, Azure and is made available as an open-source software to encourage others to adopt this non-invasive method of species tracking.

The software Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS) takes in past poaching records and geographic data of protected areas to predict poachers’ future behavior and design risk assessments and optimal patrol routes for anti-poaching rangers. PAWS is also integrated with the open-source Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART), which is used by rangers in over 1,000 protected areas to log data collected during patrols. SMART Collect—a version of SMART Mobile—facilitates decentralized data collection for community reporting projects. Data collectors can download SMART on their personal devices to assist with a range of use cases such as reporting human-wildlife conflict and wildlife crime in villages.

  • Environmental DNA

Environmental DNA (eDNA) refers to nuclear or mitochondrial DNA that organisms shed into the environment. Sources of eDNA include: skin cells, hair and fur samples, mucous, carcasses, fecal matter and reproductive secretions. In terrestrial ecosystems, eDNA generally ends up in soil and snow. In aquatic ecosystems, eDNA can be present in sediments and in the water itself. This eDNA can be extracted from the water column through filtration, centrifugation or precipitation and preserved for later analysis in the laboratory. In aquatic environments, eDNA only lasts about 7–21 days, depending on environmental conditions. Exposure to UVB radiation, acidity and heat can also degrade eDNA.

Protocols using eDNA allow for rapid, cost-effective and standardized collection of data (biodiversity assessments) about species status, distribution and abundance. This is an especially useful monitoring technique for rare, elusive and lesser-known species that often evade detection. eDNA can also help examine the impact of climate change, detect invisible threats such as zoonotic viruses or bacteria and provide a snapshot of the overall health of an ecosystem.

NatureMetrics, for example, uses eDNA to assess the biodiversity of aquatic ecosystems—providing crucial data from understudied regions to inform rehabilitation and restoration work. Their experts assemble user-friendly iDNAture kits, containing materials to sample eDNA from ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, canals, estuaries and oceans, and their FieldMate App empowers citizen scientists to collect and submit field data on the go.

WWF, together with its scientific partners, has been developing new eDNA applications to improve the monitoring of species facing extinction. They’ve demonstrated the effectiveness of eDNA in cataloging aquatic biodiversity in the Mekong River and in confirming the presence of extremely rare and threatened species like the Irrawaddy dolphin. In the forests of Bhutan, WWF uses eDNA to assess tiger prey populations. This information can be used to predict how many tigers can be sustained in a given area and determine whether there is sufficient food to maintain or increase their numbers.

Arnaud Lyet, a Lead Specialist at WWF reports:

“We have started testing it with polar bears—extracting and analyzing eDNA from their tracks in the snow. In one sample we found eDNA from a bear and from a seal (the bear’s most recent meal), as well as from a seagull that had been hovering over the sample site. So the eDNA from these few tracks in the snow told a whole story. And getting that eDNA was radically less invasive than darting bears from a helicopter and taking blood samples. eDNA could also help prevent some human-wildlife conflicts. Imagine the cases where polar bears come into villages to scrounge for food. We might take an eDNA sample from the snow around a trash can to identify an individual bear. If we repeat this sampling with subsequent trespassing bears, we can compare samples to find out whether we’re dealing with one repeat offender or a number of different bears. This could provide valuable information to help us prevent conflicts between polar bears and humans.”

  • Networked Sensors

Conservation solutions are made more robust through the combined efforts of data collected by citizen scientists and the use of connected devices. Networked sensors are embedded into the horns of rhinos and attached to the scales of pangolins—helping rangers track movement, monitor park perimeters and protect critically endangered species from poachers.

Smart Parks deploys a range of sensors, which run autonomously on solar power, consume little energy and are connected to a secure private network situated in the park itself. LoRa-enabled (long range) IoT (Internet of Things) devices and the LoRaWAN (low power, wide-area networking) protocol, allow experts to more accurately monitor biodiversity distribution, animal behavior and assess threats to migration patterns.

Technology is at a critical juncture where cutting-edge tools are available, but there are still many barriers to accessibility for scientists and local and Indigenous communities. For instance, many artificial intelligence tools remain inaccessible to conservationists due to the technical skills and costly computing resources they require. User-friendly platforms (e.g., Wildlife Insights, Microsoft’s MegaDetector) are significant improvements; however, under-resourced individuals require further funding and industry-expert mentorship (e.g., WILDLABS’ new fellowship program). Collaboration and partnership between conservationists, tech developers and local and Indigenous communities ensure that conservation tech can have the most sustained impact possible.

Zebra in southern Africa

© Megan Brief