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International Illicit Trafficking in Wildlife

By John M. Sellar, Senior Enforcement Officer, Anti-smuggling, Fraud, and Organized Crime, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Secretariat, United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland


ombating terrorism and organized crime invariably comes high on law enforcement priorities. Although it may not be well known, there is ample evidence to show a strong link between organized crime and wildlife crime. William Bratton, chief of police, Los Angeles, California, in his May 2007 Police Chief article “The Mutation of the Illicit Trade Market,” established that organized-crime entities have become decentralized networks that collaborate on nontraditional crimes such as the illicit trade in counterfeit products, movies, compact discs, and prescription drugs, as well as other smuggling operations.1 Illicit wildlife trafficking can now be counted among these crimes.

In the early 2000s, the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES),2 cooperating with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, specified indicators that demonstrate the organized nature of parts of the international illicit wildlife trade. Many of these indicators point to the fact that the perpetrators of these crimes require prior criminal experience to conduct their activities. Such crimes could not be carried out simply by specialized wildlife traders or collectors; only organized criminal groups could successfully harvest exotic species in this manner.

Organized-Crime Indicators

The international wildlife trade, estimated to be worth billions of dollars per year, includes hundreds of millions of plant and animal specimens. The trade is diverse, ranging from live animals and plants to a vast array of products derived from them, including food, exotic leather goods, wooden musical instruments, timber, tourist curios, and medicines. Some animal and plant species are exploited to the point that, together with other factors such as habitat loss, their populations have been heavily depleted. Traders have even brought a few species close to extinction.

Some of the indicators that illustrate the involvement of organized crime in illicit wildlife trafficking are as follows:

  • Detailed planning

  • Significant financial support

  • Use or threat of violence

  • International management of shipments

  • Sophisticated forgery and alteration of permits and certifications

  • Well-armed participants with the latest weapons

  • Opportunity for massive profits

The relatively low risk of detection and low level of penalties imposed upon those convicted of wildlife crime or illicit trade make these activities attractive to professional, organized criminals. The massive profits gained from the illegal trafficking of wildlife—often worth more than a given specimen’s weight in gold, diamonds, or narcotics—are appealing to organized-crime groups and networks—since this is, after all, what motivates their activities.


The illegal harvesting of endangered species frequently requires detailed planning. Vital to this process is the recruitment and payment of poachers. Once recruitment is complete, organizers must provide poachers with firearms, ammunition, vehicles, and other supplies necessary for remaining in the target species’ habitat for prolonged periods. If the specimens are to be killed, poachers need access to specialized equipment for processing and/or preserving the parts of their kill. The extraction of live specimens can require specialized cages, appropriate food, and tranquilizing medication.

One practical example of this is on the Tibetan Plateau of China, where groups of poachers seek the wool, shahtoosh, of the Tibetan antelope, called chiru. Groups of 15 to 20 poachers have been caught equipped with firearms, several off-road vehicles, and food stocks sufficient to last a month. Members of such poaching gangs have specific roles as marksmen, cooks, drivers, or skinners. Upon arrest, poachers have admitted to being recruited for this work by individuals who had arranged for the further processing of chiru skins and their subsequent smuggling out of China. Shawls made from shahtoosh can retail for the equivalent of U.S. $20,000 each—a strong motivator for such activities.

Poachers and their employers have taken similar approaches with elephants, great apes, musk deer, saiga antelope, sturgeon, tigers, and many other species of conservation concern (including the capture of live animals) for decades.

The complex processing and subsequent marketing of illegally harvested specimens often requires a financial base or startup costs beyond the means of ordinary inhabitants of poor villages. This can be seen, for example, in the case of sturgeon caviar, which must be extracted and processed carefully if it is to pass later as a genuine, high-quality product. Criminals must counterfeit tins and jars identical to those used by legitimate traders. Labels must match those used by legitimate traders and required by international law. The caviar must be refrigerated during storage periods. Finally, the finished product must be smuggled across several international borders before its final sale and distribution in countries whose consumers seek to buy it.

The profits justify the expenses. An investigation in 2001 showed that caviar with a wholesale value of U.S.$20 million had been laundered through one Middle Eastern country in a 10-month period. Today duty-free shops in European airports sell 250 grams of caviar for up to U.S.$2,290.

Because law enforcement and other criminals have found some sectors of the wildlife trade market to be inviolable, it is likely that these sectors are either owned by organized crime or pay organized-crime networks for protection. The brazen and threatening behavior of some sellers also discourages potential customers from reporting suspicions or observations to law enforcement agencies. For example, one prospective customer in the Middle East was taken to a warehouse to inspect the goods for sale and was astonished to see seven tons of caviar guarded by a large group of Russian men, all armed with automatic weapons.

The Threat to Local Communities

Organized-crime groups regularly exploit members of communities located close to poaching sites, who often live in conditions near abject poverty. Villagers are sometimes forced to work with poachers, exposing the locals to personal risk of injury or death from the hazardous terrain over which much poaching takes place. Some of the target species, which can be extremely dangerous creatures, present similar risks. Finally, the local residents are put at personal risk of arrest, imprisonment, injury, or death during encounters with law enforcement personnel because they happen to live in villages near animals viewed by consumers as exotic.

The Complexity of Smuggling

Smuggling wildlife specimens often involves crossing several borders and journeying many thousands of miles. Specimens must be concealed, using sophisticated techniques, from what may be repeated inspections by border control officials. To make the trip more profitable, narcotics and firearms can also be smuggled alongside the specimens.

The complexity of smuggling means that smugglers need both expertise and financial resources to ply their trade. Techniques include hiding illicit goods deep inside or underneath genuine cargo; wrapping them in aluminum foil to hinder detection by X-ray machines; painting them to hide their natural appearance; casing such goods as ivory carvings in clay or wood; and constructing false bottoms and other hidden compartments in baggage, cargo containers, trains, boats, and motor vehicles.

Some smuggling operations last so long that both the specimens and the route must be carefully managed, from country of origin to destination as well as when in transit. This route management requires the involvement of many people, including human couriers—commonly referred to as mules—recruited and paid to smuggle wildlife specimens. Mules often transport their goods by air, concealed in luggage or even on their body. Some airline personnel have been recruited as mules since they may be less likely to face inspection by border control staff.

Smugglers frequently ship bona fide cargo along complex routes so that, at some point during international shipment, they can replace the legal goods with illegally acquired wildlife. The illicit cargo then continues to the scheduled destination accompanied by genuine CITES permits or certificates and is thus laundered into consumer markets for unsuspecting purchasers. Sophisticated forgery or alteration of genuine permits and certificates authorizing trade in wildlife and of the security stamps used on CITES documents by some countries demonstrates the involvement of organized criminal groups.

Officials responsible for the issuance of CITES permits and certificates have been threatened, harassed, or bribed. Smugglers have been known to offer officials prostitutes to provide sexual favors in return for the issuance of trade authorization documents.

Another technique used by wildlife smugglers is to pay traditional organized-crime groups for the use of smuggling routes or methods already established. For example, criminals engaged in illicit trade in tiger and bear products between the Russian Federation and China are known to have paid the Russian Mafia to have items smuggled across the border. A surveillance operation at an Italian Mafia party noted that inordinate amounts of caviar were being served. Leaders of South American drug cartels have been known to collect exotic species; for instance, the now-deceased Colombian drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar3 is known to have had a collection of zoo-like proportions, including several animal species from Africa and Asia that must have been smuggled into Colombia.

Smuggling is also associated with revenge violence, which is typical of organized crime. For example, the murder of a trader in North America is thought to have been motivated by the fact that he allegedly supplied pig bladders to a group in Asia and claimed they were bear gallbladders. Several senior law enforcement officers responsible for directing operations against wildlife criminals have been murdered in execution style to discourage others from enforcing the law. Law enforcement organizations have noted that suspects involved in serious wildlife crime and illicit trade often have previous convictions for other forms of crime, many times involving violence.

Particularly in parts of Asia and Africa, rebel groups sometimes impose a tax on illicit cross-border wildlife trade. Whether such taxes flow to political causes, fund terrorism, or simply provide criminals with revenue is unclear. Illegal trafficking of wildlife from Pakistan has apparently increased in recent years, and such trade has involved the use of fraudulent documents allegedly issued by government authorities in Afghanistan. Are wildlife criminals exploiting the current situation in these two countries? Or are terrorists generating revenue from this illegal trade? By paying closer attention to the illegal wildlife trade, law enforcement officials would be able to learn more about what this trade is funding.

Support behind the Scenes

People who are arrested for poaching or smuggling but have no visible means of financial support often obtain for their defense high-quality criminal trial lawyers, whose fees would normally be far beyond the reach of such low-level criminals. In classic organized-crime fashion, this indicates that wealthy individuals behind the scenes are looking after their own. Law enforcement officials in India know this to be common with suspects arrested and prosecuted there for killing tigers and leopards or smuggling their skin and bones. A tiger skin currently retails for at least U.S.$10,000 in parts of China.

Several times, the court process involving poachers or traders appears to have been subverted corruptly, leading to the unexpected granting of bail, cases never reaching conclusion due to long-term delays, and even the complete dismissal of charges by apparently corrupt prosecutors or judges. In a similar vein, individuals of high political or social status have shown the ability to influence law enforcement in a corrupt manner, often to discourage any enforcement action whatsoever or to interfere in the subsequent judicial process.

The Dangers of Enforcement

Several thousand forest rangers, who have the primary responsibility for combating poachers, work in the world’s most biodiverse locations, often in countries in the developing world—or what diplomats and socioeconomists call countries with “economies in transition.” The work of rangers is often lonely, far from towns and villages, and often considered on the periphery of law enforcement. Many times, rangers are unable to call upon even the most basic logistics or support systems provided to operational law enforcement units.

Threats, harassment, and acts of violence (including murder) directed at officials tasked with wildlife law enforcement and antipoaching responsibilities point to the danger of enforcing these laws. In the late 1990s, the office and accommodation complex of a Russian Federation Border Guard unit was bombed; some 50 people, including officers and their wives and children, were understood to be killed or injured. This attack is believed to have been the work of the Russian Mafia in retaliation for an increase in enforcement operations against sturgeon poachers.

Forest rangers patrol such areas as Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, protecting its habitat and the wildlife it supports, particularly elephants, great apes, and rhinoceroses. However, their families feel no less grief or loss when their husbands, fathers, or sons die trying to save wild animals rather than responding to a liquor store robbery in an attempt to arrest a drug-crazed armed robber.

Every year, many antipoaching officers are killed in the execution of their duties. Antipoaching patrols around the world are faced regularly with gangs equipped with semi- and fully automatic firearms; some patrols in Africa have encountered criminal groups armed with rocket-propelled grenade weapons.

Poaching increases in countries experiencing civil unrest or war, and rebels fund their activities with profits from poaching or subsequent trade—in ivory, for example. Whether such groups are acting in a truly politically motivated manner or they constitute organized criminal groups is often unclear.

Disturbingly, it is not uncommon for peacekeeping and other military or paramilitary forces to conduct such poaching and illicit trade, even though these forces supposedly work to restore or maintain law and order in the country or geographic area to which they are assigned. In some instances, military command units and structures have become immense, highly organized criminal groups. A scenario such as this has played out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 209 rangers have lost their lives in a single national park in the last decade.

The Current Response

Very few countries in the world have specialized units devoted to combating wildlife crime. In most countries, this task is delegated to officials who have little training or experience in the policing skills that are so vital to effectively target and Circle no. 22 on Reader Response Card bring to justice the organized criminals who exploit natural resources. It is not uncommon for national, state, or even local agencies to decline requests for assistance from officers enforcing natural-resource laws, simply because the leadership does not understand the nature of the problem or the seriousness of wildlife crime.

Those who have the honor, privilege, and responsibility to direct law enforcement resources toward fighting crime know that the wars against terrorism and trafficking in narcotics, firearms, humans, pornography, and counterfeit goods will be long. But some endangered species don’t have time to wait for a victory in a long-term war, if law enforcement doesn’t start winning some battles soon. Once the last snow leopard is poached, the species is gone forever.■

John M. Sellar is the CITES Secretariat official responsible for law enforcement efforts against smuggling, fraud, and organized crime. He has served in the secretariat as a United Nations official for nine years and was previously an officer of the Scottish Police Service for 23 years.

1William Bratton, “The Mutation of the Illicit Trade Market,” The Police Chief 74 (May 2007): 22–24.
2The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement among 171 governments whose aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species that are traded. The CITES Secretariat is administered by the United Nations Environment Programme and is located in Geneva, Switzerland. Its pivotal role is fundamental to the convention, and its functions are laid down in Article XII of the convention’s text. For more information, visit
3Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria (December 1, 1949–December 2, 1993) gained world infamy as a Colombian drug dealer. Escobar became so wealthy in the drug trade that in 1989 Forbes magazine listed him as the seventh-richest man in the world. He is widely considered to have been one of the most brutally ruthless, ambitious, and powerful drug dealers in history. Escobar was killed in 1993 during an arrest confrontation with the Colombian National Police.



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 6, June 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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