More than tiger skins and ivory; illegal animal trade in Asia

The beautifully patterned Tokay gecko is illegally trafficked for unsubstantiated 'medicinal pursposes' - Photo by Jono Dashper.

Some of the world’s most unique species are facing rapid population declines as the billion dollar illegal animal trade booms.

If you’ve been to south east Asia, or even some areas of central and south America chances are you’ve seen monkeys, snakes or birds paraded around some of the biggest tourist hotspots; giving excited (usually well meaning) tourists the chance to snap a photo with an iconic or unusual animal for a price.

Apart from the many animal rights issues we often hear about such as the conditions these animals are kept in, there is another issue that’s just not as spoken about.

Where do these animals come from?

The answer quite frankly is that these animals are very often illegally taken from the wild.

The elephants that people are excited to jump on the back of are not only kept in terrible conditions, but they are also stolen from the comfort of their mother in the wild as an infant. How else would one train a full sized elephant? As a very maternal animal this would be absolutely agonising for a creature that many love so much.

I saw a picture of a very well meaning family member the other day holding an iguana, in Thailand of all places. How does an iguana, which only exists in central and south America end up in Thailand? Illegally.

Increasingly the online world has opened the door for exchange between those wanting to pay top dollar for their preferred species and those attracted to the money the lucrative industry can bring.

A study by Traffic was released in 2018 examining the use of Facebook as a medium for trading reptiles in the Philippines found “80% of documented online traders could be deemed involved, knowingly or otherwise, in illegal trading activities”. This included a number of non native species such as the Black Spotted Turtle Geochlemys hamiltonii and Dumeril’s Boa Acrantophis dumerili.

Many of these animals come from developing nations such as Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines where there are a lot of vulnerable communities. There are significant sections of society living below or in very close proximity to the poverty line. Education is a luxury, literacy can be minimal. This gives them little hope of breaking the cycle of poverty they were born into. These circumstances are beyond their control.

“poverty is widely considered the leading driver that causes a household’s inhabitants to take up poaching in protected areas” (Knapp, EliJ & Peace, 2017)

It is understandable that the prospect of earning a side income by going into the forest to collect an in demand species would be tempting. The price they would get for some species would be significantly more than their monthly income.

There is also little accountability on a government front. For the most part a blind eye is turned. A mixture of corruption, inadequate sentencing and weak laws continue to enable this industry to thrive (Uhm and Moreto, 2017).

On the other side of the coin, is the consumers. The animals I mentioned earlier being paraded around as entertainment are just the tip of the iceberg. Many many more of illegally trafficked animals are sold to private owners as pets, or for their composite parts supposedly for ‘medicinal purposes’.

A tiger for example is worth significant more for individual parts than as a live animal (E O’Neill, 2008).

Much of the illegal pet trade consists of smaller animals such as reptiles, amphibians and birds. These animals are understandably easier to transport.

In Indonesia we learnt a lot about illegal wildlife trafficking. Mostly from speaking with local guides who expressed the uphill battle they are facing. Feeling powerless as they witnessed declines in key species. A study on amphibians and reptiles harvested for trade in Indonesian New Guinea found that “At least 44 % were either fully protected or had not been allocated a harvest quota, making their harvest and trade illegal”.

20 years ago black-winged mynas (Acridotheres melanopterus, A. tricolor and A. tertius), three species of Critically Endangered songbirds endemic to Indonesia were of little concern, not even classified as threatened. Now, “high levels of trapping from the wild for the largely domestic cage bird trade has brought all three species to the brink of extinction” (V Nijman, K.A.I Nekaris 2018). There are estimated to be less than 500 remaining in the wild.

“It is suggested that “at least 80% of the green pythons exported from Indonesia annually are illegally wild-caught” (Lyons & Natusch, 2011).

These are but a handful of examples of the species being targeted for illegal trade in Indonesia, one of the world’s ‘hotspots’ for wildlife trafficking.

Often we have heard of the exotic pet trade being fuelled by those from the UAE, but in fact the USA is “a leading market for wild collected Indonesian reptiles” (Phelps, Biggs and Webb, 2016).

Unfortunately many exotic pets for sale are sold as ‘captive bred’ which, for the most part is legal. There is little legislation that mandates background checks on animals coming into the country that are said to be ‘captive bred’. This makes it rather impossible for the end consumer to know if their soon to be pet has been snatched from its wild habitat or not. Making an informed decision in this case is very difficult on the consumers end.

“Second to habitat loss, illegal trade of wildlife is considered the biggest threat to many endangered species” (The Conversation, 2017).

The world is currently facing what is becoming known as the Sixth Extinction, and while we hear a lot about Rhino’s, Elephants, Pandas and Tigers, the same cannot be said for equally, if not more ecologically significant species such as our amphibians, reptiles  and Birdlife.

As an immensely complicated issue involving all aspects of sustainability (social, economic and environmental) where is the most impactful change able to be made?

In an ideal world we could just say “well, everyone should just follow the law and this wouldn’t happen”, but we don’t live in such a simplistic and easy to navigate world. We are facing wicked problems like poverty and wildlife trafficking.

These problems are ‘wicked’ as there is no simple solution; “cause-effect relations are complex and solutions unclear; many of these problems are urgent, yet there is no central authority to solve them; their magnitude is often hard to estimate; and those trying to solve them may even contribute to causing them” (Manning and Reinecke, 2016).

What do you think should be done to eradicate participation in illegal wildlife trafficking?

Hope for Indonesia

Flora and Fauna International has spent over a decade working with communities living on the peripheral of Kerinci-Seblat National Park in, Sumatra, Indonesia; home to approximately 25% of the dwindling Sumatran tiger population. They have established Tiger Protection and Conservation Units which are led by park officials alongside
community rangers.

“The project has directly contributed to 63 arrests and 59 successful or ongoing
prosecutions for wildlife crimes. Three-month to four-year sentences have been
imposed on convicted criminals. In 2017, the recorded poaching threat fell by 90%, as a
direct result of this strategic law enforcement against key individuals”

Read the full case study here (PDF, 1538 kB).

Big tech companies united in putting an end to online, illegal animal trafficking.

Last year (2018) Google and the World Wildlife Fund collaborated with 21 tech companies including eBay, Facebook, Microsoft and Instagram to form the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online.

“The companies, in partnership with wildlife experts at WWF, TRAFFIC, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare pledged a multi-pronged, industry-wide approach aimed at reducing online trafficking by 80% by 2020”.

Read full case study here.

What can you do?

On an individual level it’s worthwhile considering the purchases you make at home and during travels. Purchasing items made from tortoise or ivory fuels to these industries. Your dollars and voice can go a long way in deterring poaching.

Wildleaks is a not-for-profit which allows anyone to anonymously report suspected  wildlife or forest crimes. This can include poaching, wildlife trafficking or illegal logging. Their mission is to “receive and evaluate anonymous information and tips regarding wildlife crime, including corruption, and transform them into concrete actions”.


I saw this whilst researching for this post. I thought it was a great look at the opportunities technology presents in addressing illegal animal trafficking:

PasoPacifico is planting fake sea turtle eggs on Nicaragua’s beaches to gather intelligence on underground poaching networks in the country.

5 thoughts on “More than tiger skins and ivory; illegal animal trade in Asia

  1. Hi Juliet! This is a great post. I’d heard a bit about the illegal pet trade, and have occasionally shared news stories about it on my blog, but you’ve gone into this topic in more detail than I ever have; I genuinely learned a lot. I’m going to reblog this sometimes this on Wednesday; I have a rather lengthy post being released tomorrow morning (in a few hours) and I don’t want to overload my readers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you benefited from it! It really is very complex and this just scratches the surface but I genuinely enjoyed researching the topic. A few people have mentioned it gave them a better understanding of the scale of this issue. You are more than welcome to reblog 🙂 Have a great day Josh!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for the kind words Tamanna! It certainly is. It’s one of those things where the more I researched about it the more complex the whole scale of it became. Hopefully this brings a bit more awareness to the topic and sparks some conversations.

        Liked by 1 person

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