Animal Trafficking: The Wildlife Trade You Don’t Want to Believe Exists

animal trafficking

When you hear a news story about trafficking, the items that come to mind might include guns, drugs, or even people. But do you know how animal trafficking is impacting our world, our environment, and our safety?

Animal trafficking is not only a form of animal cruelty but also a crime that’s frequently linked with other types of criminal activity, including the aforementioned drugs and guns. People who know how to traffic animals aren’t likely to be scared of trafficking other items, as well.

Since some of the most sought-after animals are native to foreign lands, those animals are often trafficked into the United States as well as other countries. These animals are bred or poached illegally and often face a horrific fate.

There are many dangers inherent to animal smuggling that extend far beyond animal welfare, but too often, we aren’t thinking of the animals themselves. What fear, anguish, and pain do they experience as victims of wildlife trafficking operations? And where do they end up?

The illegal animal trade has lots of moving parts, and every animal victim has a different purpose and value. However, it’s important to note that animal trafficking only happens because there’s a market for it. If people didn’t demand these animals, nobody would bother smuggling them.

So what is animal trafficking? And why should we care?

What Is Animal Trafficking?

what is animal trafficking

Animal trafficking is the transport of animals from one place to another for the purposes of commercial enterprise. In other words, animal smugglers clandestinely smuggle animals so they can sell those animals to other vendors, a lot of the times on the black market.

Certain continents are more prone to animal trafficking than others. South and Latin America and the Caribbean, for instance, are extremely biodiverse, which means that they host more types of wildlife than other places on the planet.

However, animal trafficking can take place anywhere, and it’s often part of an international operation that spans many countries and involves hundreds or even thousands of human participants.

Animals are trafficked in much the same way that guns and drugs are conveyed across state and country lines and even across oceans. They’re hidden in toilet paper tubes, clothing, nested boxes, and more. In some cases, traffickers even keep the animals on their person, such as in their pockets.

Many times, the animals die before they reach their destinations. They’re often sedated with alcohol or drugs to keep them from moving or making noise during transit. These substances wreak havoc on their systems and can result in respiratory or cardiac issues.

Larger animals often find their way across the ocean via ships. It all depends on whether the buyer wants the animal itself, such as a tiger or monkey, or an animal by-product, such as a rhino horn or elephant tusk.

In recent years, air delivery services have been helpful in stopping animal trafficking at the port of entry. By using advanced technologies to scan and inspect incoming packages, they can find illicit goods before they make their way into customers’ hands.

How Much Is the Illegal Wildlife Trade Worth?

As in all criminal operations, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact amount of money that changes hands as a result of animal smuggling. According to the World Economic Forum, however, the revenue produced by animal trafficking certainly ranks around 23 billion dollars worldwide.

When people buy illegal animals or animal by-products, they’re forced to pay a premium because the seller took uncountable risks to deliver the illicit “merchandise.” Because of its illegality, the wildlife trade isn’t regulated by any governmental authority.

Just like with drugs and arms, animals have intrinsic value to people who want them — or their body parts. That makes the trade extremely lucrative for those who lack the moral or ethical impetus to seek other lines of work.

Why Is Animal Smuggling So Dangerous for Humans and Animals?

dangers of animal trafficking

There are numerous dangers associated with animal trafficking.

For one thing, animals are often poached and destroyed in the field for their valuable body parts, such as rhino horns. These animals suffer unnecessarily and lose their lives just because a consumer believes he or she is entitled to that animal’s body.

The animals who are shipped from one place to another are not domesticated. They don’t understand what it means to be caged, and they’ll often hurt themselves trying to escape. Their handlers aren’t known for their gentle natures, so many of these animals get beaten and otherwise abused.

Plus, the animals are plucked from their natural habitats. There’s a reason why animals are indigenous to some parts of the world and not others. Their biological makeup endears them to certain weather conditions, plant life, animal life, and other details. During animal smuggling, the animals are uprooted and taken to a place where they can’t easily survive.

The Impact of Animal Trafficking on Humans

In terms of humans, it’s important to remember that wild animals are dangerous. They have no desire to hurt us, but when threatened, they’ll defend themselves. Animal traffickers use tranquilizers and other weapons to subdue the wildlife, but many are injured in confrontations.

Animals can also carry diseases and parasites that might infect human beings. Additionally, imported animals can spread diseases and parasites to other animals in the destination country, causing serious epidemics.

Companion animals, such as dogs and cats, can become victims of much larger predators who escape their traffickers’ confines. Smaller animals in one part of the world don’t know how to defend themselves against larger predators they’ve never seen before.

Birds are among the most-trafficked animals, as we’ll discuss below, and they’re typically taken from their nests soon after birth. Traffickers and smugglers will fell trees just to get access to these baby birds. The mothers never get to nourish and raise their young.

What Is the Most Trafficked Animal?

world's most trafficked animal

The pangolin is the most-trafficked mammal. Poachers capture and kill these beautiful animals for their scales and meat. In some cases, their scales are passed off as pieces of plastic to get them through traditional travel channels.

Pangolins are nocturnal anteaters native to Southeastern Asia. They’re trafficked by the millions because of their varied uses, many of which are rooted in Chinese culture. The Chinese boil the scales off the animals’ hides and use them in medicines designed to cure everything from poor lactation to palsy in humans.

If that weren’t sad enough, the pangolin is perilously close to extinction. Most people don’t even know they exist, and when you see one for the first time, you might struggle to categorize it based on what you know about animal life.

Some people describe pangolins as dinosaurs or as “walking artichokes.” They’re funny-looking creatures, but they’re neither dangerous to humans nor considered predatory in the wild — except toward ants, of course.

What Other Animals Are Smuggled Around the World?

Birds as a group are more trafficked than any other animal, largely because of their size and their value on the international black market. As mentioned above, they’re often caught by poachers as babies and sold as pets or for food.

Many different types of birds are valuable for animal trafficking, from harpy eagles to finches and hummingbirds. These animals are difficult to catch, especially without injuring them, and adult specimens aren’t easily domesticated.

Other animals that are frequently trafficked include the following:

  • Crocodilians
  • Snakes
  • Insects and arachnids
  • Tigers and other big cats
  • Gaur
  • Monkeys

Some animals are trafficked not as whole animals, but as pieces and parts. They’re valuable for their pelts, skulls, blood, meat, and more. Particularly in the East, many animal parts are seen as vehicles for healing, so they’re trafficked for medicinal purposes.

Why Is There a Demand for Animal Trafficking?

Any regular person would likely wonder why animal trafficking has become such a lucrative black-market trade. After all, a pound of heroin isn’t going to attack you with its teeth and claws, so why do animal traffickers bother?

Money is the primary reason. These people take extraordinary risks to rip animals from their natural habitats and force them into servitude, domesticity, or death.

Let’s look at a few of the reasons animal trafficking exists.

Exotic Pets

animal trafficking for exotic pets

One of the primary reasons behind animal trafficking lies in people’s desires for exotic pets. Dogs and cats are great, but what if you could have a pet tiger or alligator?

It sounds exciting in theory, but such arrangements rarely work out. For one thing, these animals aren’t domestic. They haven’t formed bonds with human beings, and they react to their circumstances based purely on instinct.

Even in cases where a wild animal seems to have grown accustomed to human companionship, one wrong move could set off the animal and result in serious injury or even death. Dogs and cats have attacked their human companions, so wild animals are many times more dangerous.

This doesn’t mean these animals are vicious or evil. They simply follow their instincts. One of their instincts is to fight back when a threat presents itself. The animal is the sole arbiter of whether or not something qualifies as a threat.

Furthermore, these animals have been removed from everything they know. They’re in an unfamiliar environment and facing weather conditions to which they’re unaccustomed. Many of these animals fail to thrive after they find homes overseas, and too many of them die.

Worse, people who buy trafficked animals as babies often fail to look into the future. A cute little tiger cub or alligator baby grows into a full-grown animal. Unable to control their exotic pets, the owners either kill the animals or unleash them into the wild.

Exotic Dishes

animal trafficking for exotic dishes

Too many so-called exotic dishes require ingredients that no normal chef would put on the menu. Consider, for instance, shark fin soup. Fishermen cut off the sharks’ fins, killing them, and serve them in a dish that has become extremely popular among wealthy residents of the Far East.

The shark fin itself doesn’t provide any real flavor or substance to the soup, which is typically made with chicken broth. Experts estimate that up to 200 million sharks are killed every year for their fins alone.

This isn’t just about the pain, torture, and killing of innocent sharks, either. Sharks of all sizes and species are critical to oceanic ecosystems. They’re apex predators in the water, so they help maintain balance under the sea.


Meat obtained in the wild from non-domesticated animals is called bushmeat. In developing countries, it’s often the only form of sustenance available to the people who live there, but in developed nations, bushmeat has become a delicacy.

The butchering of innocent animals for a meal is bad enough, but the animals chosen for bushmeat are often carriers of serious diseases, from Ebola to HIV. People who eat these foods can become infected themselves and spread the diseases further.

Animal Fighting

Animals are often imported and exported for gambling-related activities like animal fighting. This doesn’t just apply to exotic animals. Breeders of dogs in other countries sometimes export their puppies to be raised as fighters.

This barbaric tradition pits one animal against the other into a fight to the death. Spectators and participants bet on which animal will emerge victoriously, and in many cases, attendees pay admission.

Animals commonly associated with animal fighting include dogs, roosters, hogs, and others. What you might not know from what you’ve seen on television shows and in movies is that dogfights can last two hours or more.


Animal trafficking is also commonly associated with the fur farming and wild fur harvesting industries. People buy furs to use as shawls, wraps, coats, rugs, wall hangings, and even bedding.

These animals are often field-dressed, which means they’re killed in the field and have their furs harvested right then and there. The animal traffickers have no other use for the animal, so they simply leave its carcass on the ground to rot.

Fox, mink, and exotic animal furs are extremely popular on the animal black market.

Jewelry, Furniture, and Accessories

Animal traffickers harvest various parts of the animals to use to make jewelry, furniture, and other accessories. These animals give up their lives so consumers can decorate themselves and their homes.

It can be as simple as a necklace of crocodile teeth worn around the neck or as elaborate as a carved trinket made from elephant ivory. Again, these animals are often killed for just one body part, so their deaths are meaningless other than as cash cows for the animal smugglers.

Status Symbol

Wearing a fur coat, fashioning living room furniture around a tiger pelt rug, or hanging a rhino horn on one’s wall can serve as status symbols for the owner. It’s a ridiculous tradition that consumes animals’ lives not for sustenance, but for prestige.

Fortunately, animal rights groups fight against these status symbols, and they’re becoming less powerful. However, there’s still enormous demand around the world for smuggled animal parts that will be used to convey status and economic success.


As mentioned previously, Eastern medicine often demands ingredients found only in the animal kingdom, whether it’s shavings from a rhino’s horn, blood from a pangolin, or feathers from an exotic bird.

No scientific study has proved the efficacy of these treatments, and many of them can actually make the person sicker due to foreign bodies in the “medicine” and potential bacterial infection. Still, practitioners buy these products from animal traffickers.

What Can We Do to Stop Animal Trafficking?

what can we do to stop animal trafficking

Animal trafficking has been going on for hundreds of years, and it continues to remain strong around the world. The best way to fight animal smuggling is to make sure you’re not buying anything that contains animal by-products.

Unless you’re a member of law enforcement, you can’t investigate and track down people involved in the illegal animal trade. However, if you know that someone is keeping an illegal exotic animal as a pet, notify the authorities. These animals should be confiscated for the safety of the animals as well as the community.

Consider becoming an animal rights activist if you feel passionately about protecting animals from trafficking. Advocate for laws that help restrict what animals and animal by-products can be shipped from one area to another.


Animal trafficking is responsible for contributing to many crimes, both domestically and abroad, and continues to deplete the populations of endangered animals around the world. No animal should be viewed as a commodity.

Even those who don’t advocate for the welfare of animals should realize that animal smuggling is dangerous. The people involved can get injured by the animals they smuggle or arrested and imprisoned for their crimes.

Spread the word about animal trafficking to everyone you know. Make sure it’s a topic of concern in your community and country and that people know what’s at stake.

Feel free to share this article on social media or via email to let others know about the dangers and horrors of animal trafficking. The more awareness we spread, the faster we can stop the illegal animal trade in its tracks.

Were you aware of the pervasion of animal trafficking cases?