Wildlife Trafficking

A global conglomerate exploiting many for the profit of few


By Kate Beskeen, Zookeeper


The impacts in New Zealand, Australia and South East Asia


With the unique, and rare capturing adoration and attention from people no matter their background or societal status, and with so many animal products being promoted as medicinal miracles, it is no wonder wildlife are trafficked at high rates. The United Nations estimated that in 2016 alone, the illegal wildlife trade made between seven and twenty-three billion US dollars globally. Images that come to mind when the illegal wildlife trade is mentioned are those of ivory, elephant tusks and trophy hunters of Africa, however trade is affecting lesser-known species including plants and not just on a small scale, much closer to home than some realise.


It is the already endangered Wildlife, or not easily obtained, affected by this trade which means that those protecting species must keep locations unknown, and/or well secured. A season's worth of protection efforts, and a years’ worth of breeding for a species can be seen by some as profit well into the tens of thousands on the black market.


The Local Situation


In regards to Australia and New Zealand, the trafficking into the country is not insignificant but often on a smaller scale by comparison to global standards, with traders making profit on high prices for exotic animals. Often these traders may have the facilities and licensing to breed, trade and hold the monopoly on a species, making a tax-free profit very hard for authorities to track, let alone the police. With embargos stopping legal importation of exotic species, they remain hard to acquire and for some you can sell or purchase easily and legally for as much as 40,000NZD per individual. The benefits of new genetics to these isolated groups can mean a breeding pair or healthier larger animals are acquired, increasing profit margins which in turn allows for trafficking in the pet trade to continue.


Within Australia it is not uncommon for exotic animals to be found in drug raids. These animals are illegally kept as pets with many requiring very specific licensing to be held due to the biosecurity risks to the environment.


"In 2016 alone, the illegal wildlife trade made between $7 to 23 billion US dollars globally."


The risks these exotic animals pose to New Zealand are wide ranging. An example of this is beak and feather, a disease which affects parrots (Ha.H.J et.al,2011). It is already prevalent in both captive and wild populations elsewhere, with some individuals being asymptomatic carriers of this disease which can lead to mass die off.


New Zealand’s parrots are largely limited to isolated pockets and the introduction of such a contagion to these groups could lead to them disappearing entirely. Many will remember the algae Didymosphenia Geminate (Didymo), this species being first known in the Northern hemisphere but showed up in South Island waterways, and as it is believed to be an aggressive invasive species it triggered a massive biosecurity response.


Research since then has shown Didymo was likely all-ready present (NIWA Taihoro Nukurangi, 2014), but had it been an introduced species the worst-case scenario projected by the New Zealand herald in 2006, would have been a cost to the country of NZ$285m.


If you also think of your declarations coming through airport security, have you been in farmed areas? What is your trade and how have you cleaned the tools of your trade? With the illegal trade of live animals there is often no quarantine procedure. Plant seeds and birds’ eggs can be purchased online and sent by post. Often the purchase is legal, it is just the destination that is not and the source of the product is unknown as it may have been harvested directly from the wild, or reared in conditions promoting the kind of diseases that may cross to agriculture.


How and Why? Some Examples


It is not surprising that animal trafficking into New Zealand and Australia is on a smaller scale. Multiple sources view Vietnam and China as primary consumers, with over 159 different routes used to get animal product there. The two main reasons for consumption being for medicinal purposes and to elevate social status.


The common traffic method from New Zealand and Australia to other countries is by post. A federal report released in Australia 2020 described the seizure of thousands of dollars’ worth of juvenile lizards, which had been intercepted at an international distribution point for Australian post. The method used for the attempted smuggling was quite sophisticated in nature (from a smuggling perspective), where the animals were restrained to limit movement and stored in rice cookers.


Often animals found in such seizures are in such poor condition that even veterinary treatment cannot help them, and those that can be helped are not able to be released as there are captive diseases which may wipe out wild populations.


The attempted shipping manner is not unlike those described at times in press-releases following drug seizures at borders, again suggesting links between drug trafficking and wildlife trafficking.


A source that has had first hand experience in South East Asia (where boat and road vehicles are the main means of transport), says that there is evidence that the same routes, traders, and methods involved in the traffic of wildlife are likely those that deal in human and drug trafficking.


Species Specifics Trafficking


New Zealand species that are sought after overseas include geckos, tuatara, orchids, parrots and black coral. A regulatory impact statement: wildlife (smuggling deterrence) bill released in 2012 stated that a pair of New Zealand gecko would fetch as much as 13,500NZD.


Protection of the gecko species is made harder as it is not classified as threatened by trade like some of the more iconic species such as Tuatara. Like the Gecko in New Zealand, exotic species classified as pets are not protected under legislation, making species such as cockatoos (which are protected under legislation in Australia) more readily and legally traded.


The demand for these species outside New Zealand means that a lot of individuals are leaving the country. Red-tailed black cockatoos are worth between 10-15,000NZD, there are limited numbers in the country but the legal price that some of these animals will fetch, stimulates trafficking into the country. Animal movements within the country are also used to facilitate cash changing hands. A tactic sometimes used when shipping parrots is to place money in a cage with the animal, in this way large sums of money can be moved around with very little detection.


Pangolin Trafficking


Currently the most trafficked animal in the world is the Pangolin. The pangolin is so heavily harvested that per annum, 20 tonnes are trafficked. For an animal weighing just four to eight kilograms, this is a rate so unsustainable that the Asiatic species has become difficult to acquire and the importation of the African species has begun.


It is the scales of these animals that hold the most value to consumers which boast medicinal properties, though the meat may also be consumed. Raids intercepting pangolin trafficking yield tonnes of product being shipped at a time. The true value of this species on the black market is difficult to determine but an estimate by the guardian in 2013 gave a value of $1000 AD per animal, a value that will have almost certainly have increased since that time.


Tiger Trafficking


Tigers are another of Asia's highly trafficked animals, with traffic.org sighting there are now more tigers in captivity than in the wild. Traders in this species have developed a few methods to boost profits. One method has been to use lion skins in place of tigers, as declining tiger numbers due to poaching have made them harder to come by (and worth more) on the black market. Another method is to acquire a legal permit to house /possess tigers, all that is required for such a permit is a zoo type facility where the public can visit.


Like many zoos there is a provision for breeding, unlike western zoos these traders will have row upon row of off-display animals in small cages which they are able to breed from.


Essentially these facilities are being run as farms, with the true number and flow of animals within and traded off premises, being difficult to accurately monitor and police. Traffic statistics suggest that 110 tigers are illegally traded every year, with an estimated 30% of these animals being from captive breeding facilities throughout Asia.


No Easy Fix


A common theme through all of the above-mentioned examples is that, for the most part, countries do have existing legislation and wildlife protection laws. Currently the incentive for illegal trade remains as the value of the product outweighs the risk of being caught, while monitoring and enforcing compliance remains difficult. The current strategy to combat the illegal trade of wildlife in Asia is to encourage compliance through changing consumer views and priorities. Conservation groups and eco-tourism have been working together to increase the value of the live animal in its natural environment. For instance, tour guides are paid per animal sighted, which also gives the animal more value when alive and provides livelihoods which are benefited by compliance.


Changing society's perception can lower the status associated with illegal trade, this is more difficult, but education can help as can highlighting the risk to human health. The live animal markets in China form part of the wildlife trade, both illegal and legal, and the current global pandemic has shifted perception enough to see some governments attempt to ban these markets in an attempt to safeguard against future global health scares.


While there is still debate over the role these markets had in the current health crisis, it is agreed that conditions for the animals could improve and reducing these markets would also reduce the centres available for illegal trade.


"Wildlife trafficking is linked with other forms of trafficking globally, and the amount of money changing hands as a result of this trade, there is a long way to go to resolve the issue."


New Zealand and Australia


In New Zealand there is currently the ability to make large amounts of money, while the maximum penalties able to be imposed are a six-month imprisonment or $1,000,000, with courts only being able to charge one or the other punishment, never both.


From accounts heard of convictions in Australia the situation is much the same there. Increasing sentences and fines would promote some deterrent but speaking with people within the wildlife industry, the ease with which trafficking attempts can be made and aborted without being detected means that this likely will not result in compliance. Some are offered sums of money into the thousands just for taking an egg to the post office, a very tempting payout for minimal effort and involvement. Some anecdotal examples of this are eggs being transported on a person during flights, as the egg can be destroyed rapidly if they fear detection.


The Many Means of Smuggling


Those using a boat to traffic have been known to release an animal near landfall before being intercepted by officials, it is thought that this is how Sulphur-crested cockatoos became naturalised in New Zealand.


Private air strips have also been described as an area that would take a lot of resources to successfully police. Another idea is to legalise the importation of exotic species, as this would create an infrastructure and a lot of legislation, allowing strict quarantine which would protect natural and farmed systems. Allowing more legal animal flow would flood the market and decrease the price of the animals to trade and if used in conjunction with tougher penalties for noncompliance, the pay off of illegal trafficking no longer outweighs the risk.


With evidence that wildlife trafficking is linked with other forms of trafficking globally, and the amount of money changing hands as a result of this trade, there is a long way to go to resolve the issue. Despite this, the key strategies being used in conjunction, are being seen to make a difference.


In areas where more profit is made from wild sightings and ecotourism, the incentive to poach and provide traders with product decreases. Stricter penalties would create a deterrent while legally being able to trade will make animals more readily available and thus decrease market value.


These are all areas where legislation can work with encouraging/promoting practices that lead to compliance, making policing those that don’t comply a lot less of a strain on resources and cost to the economy.

Kate Beskeen, Zookeeper
Kate Beskeen, Zookeeper

Kate Beskeen’s career began with an interest in academia, obtaining a Bachelor of Science majoring in zoology, and has since gained experience in both captive animal management and in situ monitoring/protection of wildlife, mostly in central Queensland but also in other areas of Australia. Her work has allowed for exposure to areas of conservation which have a lot of community interaction and information is now being shared through many sectors of society from the public, to university students, councillors, media, among others. In much the same way this article is seen, one of Kate's goals is to achieve conservation through information sharing and promoting community action to continually hold or drive improvement of standards surrounding wildlife legislation.



Illegal activity not only has social impacts in wildlife trafficking but also in money laundering. James Haydock investigates in the 'Social Impacts of Money Laundering'.