Wildlife Trade:
Reasons and Regulations

October 31, 2021Lu Shegay


The wildlife trade has become a common business practice in many countries around the world, especially in Asia where wildlife trafficking is one of the serious and most pressing issues in animal protection. Wildlife trade generally refers to the sale of products derived from non-domesticated animals or plants. There is a lot of controversy with regard to this practice because wild animals are usually extracted from their natural environment or raised under strict and controlled conditions, which are not beneficial for animals. This practice poses a negative effect not only for the animals themselves that have to experience suffering but also for humans, especially after the COVID-19 outbreak. A lot of animals die during transportation, some die in captivity in unnatural conditions, some die prematurely from malnutrition, loneliness, stress, and many other factors. The wildlife trade is regulated almost in every country at the national level and there are also international treaties that control this practice, however, sometimes the law is not enough and not the only thing that is needed for the protection of animals.

"Asian Elephant" by wwarby is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Wildlife smuggling or trafficking involves the illegal gathering, transportation, and distribution of animals and their derivatives, and this occurs both internationally and domestically. The reasons for wildlife trade vary. Some do this for the purposes of traditional medicine, some keep non-domesticated animals as pets, some slaughter wildlife animals for clothing, apparel, etc. Illegal wildlife trade generally occurs due to strict regulations on the trade in certain species or the complete ban on extracting some animals from the wild. There are other causes of wildlife trafficking, for instance, the lack of laws also serves as one of the reasons for such practices. When the law takes place in a certain jurisdiction, the punishments may not be high enough to stop or at least reduce illegal activity. With that being said, for instance, in India, the fine ranges from approximately INR 10 000 - 25 000 (USD 133 - 333.5) and 7-10 years of imprisonment. However, such penalties may not be sufficient because of poor prosecution. The problem with illegal wildlife trade and its regulations is ineffective monitor and control over poachers and black markets, insufficient prosecution by the authorities, and sometimes even corruption. The latter is especially common in Asian countries.

Another reason is that there are thousands of undocumented species that may be traded legally in the international market contrary to the national laws. There has been much clarity about which species are considered endangered. Despite being on the verge of extinction some species are being hunted commercially on a large scale because of unclear documentation. For example, these species include abalones in Africa and whales in the Antarctic.

And, of course, the use of animals and their body parts in medicine may not be skipped as one of the primary reasons for both illegal and legal wildlife trade. “Right from being used in medicines to making a carpet and rug, the usage of the wildlife trade is so diverse that sometimes it’s hard to tackle it on such a big scale. Knowing one source of illegal trade and stopping it is possible but investigating thousands of sources is bound to leave some fronts unmanned. To provide a glimpse of the scale of wildlife trafficking, there are records of over 100 million tonnes of fish, 1.5 million live birds, and 440,000 tonnes of medicinal plants in trade in just one year, despite strict laws in our country. Countries in the African sub-continent are the worst affected, with Asian wildlife declining following it. In India, the illegal trade includes diverse products such as Mongoose hair; Rhino horn, snake skins, Tiger and Leopard claws, bones, skins, whiskers; Elephant tusks; Deer antlers; Shahtoosh shawl; Turtle shells; Musk pods; Bear bile; medicinal plants; timber and caged birds such as Parakeets, Mynas, Munias, etc. The majority of these illegally obtained parts are meant for the international market and has no direct demand in India.”

"Rhinoceros - Diceros bicornis" by dhruvaraj is licensed under CC BY 2.0

International Protection

As it was mentioned above, there are certain international legal sources that protect the wildlife animals and plants and their habitat, as well as aimed at the conservation of certain endangered species or species threatened with extinction.

For instance, the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, also known as the Berne Convention, is a binding international legal instrument in the field of Nature Conservation that covers the natural heritage in Europe and some African countries. The Convention has three main aims, which are: (1) to conserve wild flora and fauna and their natural habitats; (2) to promote cooperation between states; (3) to give particular attention to endangered and vulnerable species including endangered and vulnerable migratory species. The Convention sets out the requirement for the Member States to take all necessary steps to promote national conservation policies, measures against pollution, educational and informative measures, coordinate efforts to protect migratory species, and establish legislative and administrative measures.

Another international legal source providing protection to wildlife animals and plants is the Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty. This Convention contains three main goals, which are the conservation of biological diversity (or biodiversity); the sustainable use of its components; and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources. Its objective is to develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, and it is often seen as the key document regarding sustainable development. Other conventions can be found here.

As for the regulation of trade in wildlife animals and plants, the only large and international legal source is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) protects endangered plants and animals and is intended to regulate, control, prohibit, or limit international trade of endangered or threatened species. CITES protects approximately 5800 species of animals and 30 000 species of plants against over-exploitation through international trade. It lists each species under one of the three Appendices depending on the level of being threatened by international trade.

With that being said, Appendix I lists threatened with extinction species or species that may be affected by international trade. These species cannot be used in commercial trade but are permitted only in exceptional cases with the approved license. Any other trade of the species of Appendix I requires export and import permits. Appendix II contains the list of species that may not be necessarily threatened with extinction but may become so if the trade is not strictly regulated. International trade of species listed in Appendix II can be authorized by the export permit or re-export certificate, and the export permit is required by the exporting country. If one of the Parties requests other CITES Parties the assistance in controlling the trade of some species, these species are included in Appendix III. The trade of these species is allowed only with an export permit and a certificate of origin from the country which lists these species.

"Giant ground pangolin" by Oregon State University is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Globally, a few large organizations have been established to battle the wildlife trade and collect data on the number of cases, number of species, and other information. For instance, the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT) was established in 2005 by the U.S. State Department to end the illegal trade of wildlife and its products. Currently, it includes a few governments and several international non-profit organizations that are working on raising public awareness about this issue, enhancing international cross-border law enforcement to limit supply, and strengthening political support from upper echelons.

TRAFFIC, one of the most well-known organizations working on both legal and illegal wildlife trade, is focused on achieving a sustained reduction in illegal wildlife trade by increasing the risks and reducing the rewards associated with trading in wildlife contraband, thereby reducing the criminal motivation and engagement in the illicit trade that is driving the poaching crisis.

There are certain organizations that address the issues of the illegal wildlife trade. These are the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network, South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), United Nations Environment Programme, Wildlife Alliance, and many more.


Effective wildlife protection by all possible means, including law, policy, and education, is crucial for the overall conservation of the entire planet. All species are dependent on each other in the entire ecosystem and providing proper legal protection, efficient monitor of species, enforcement may lead to the saving of many animals and plants. Even though, almost every country regulates the wildlife protection and legal wildlife trade, prohibits trade in vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered species, the black market exists due to the demand. To stop the trade, we have to reduce and eliminate the demand for such practices and consider taking all necessary steps to conserve animals and their habitats.

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