Wildlife Smuggling and the Illegal Exotic Pet Trade


Wildlife smuggling of exotic pets is the fourth biggest illegal trade in the world, behind the trafficking of drugs, arms, and people.

Wildlife smuggling or trafficking involves the illegal gathering, transportation, and distribution of animals and their derivatives, such as fur, horns and scales.

Wildlife smuggling is estimated between $10 and $20 billion dollars a year worldwide, and about £2.5 billion pounds a year in the UK alone; around 47 million ‘pets’ (mostly fish)!

However the illegal nature of such activities make determining the amount of money involved incredibly difficult.

Products demanded by the trade include exotic pets, food such as Bush Meat, Chinese medicine, clothing, and jewellery made from animals’ tusks, fins, skins, shells, horns, and internal organs.

Smuggled wildlife is an increasing global demand and it is estimated that the, US, China and the European Union are the places with the highest demand.


Image: Two infant long-tailed macaques are for sale at a pet market in Medan, Indonesia, a known hub of the live animal trade. Source

It is a worldwide epidemic that needs to be stopped. Taking exotic wildlife out of their natural habitat leads to lots if pain and death for the poor animals.


Why Do People Want Exotic Animals?

There are various reason for people wanting exotic animals. Some want unusual and rare pets such as tigers, bears, monkeys and reptiles. They perceive it as a symbol of wealth and status i.e. if it is expensive, and rare, and I own it, then it makes me look good in the eyes of others.

Some people are simply interested in rare animal biology.

Other people are influenced by TV shows and movies. Many animals are captured from their native environments, smuggled across national borders. Source.

One of the main reasons is simply money and greed, fuelled by corruption and crime. Members of terrorist and criminal organisations illicitly traffic in hundreds of millions of animals to fund weapons, finance civil conflicts, and launder money from illicit sources.

It is often seen as victimless crime, and it struggles to capture the attention it deserves.

Video: Josh Duhamel’s 30 second Endangered Species Situation video outlines the obvious and demonstrates it is in fact anything but a victimless crime.

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What Happens During Wildlife Smuggling?

A lot of exotic wildlife comes from Countries such as Australia, Africa, and the jungles of Brazil. The laws and penalties are lax in some areas, where they are strict, they do not dissuade criminals and dealers in light of the serious money they can make from smuggling.

Trappers capture the animals in their natural habitat and take them away. Because of the illegal and criminal nature of the Industry, these animals often change hands several times e.g. transporters and exporters. The conditions in which these frightened animals are transported can be horrendous.

Image: Yellow-crested cockatoo inserted in empty water bottles for illegal trade and transport, are shown by police officials at Port of Tanjung Perak on May 4, 2015 in Surabaya, Indonesia. Source

Other birds such as Parrots also have their beaks and feet taped, and be stuffed into plastic tubes so they can easily be hidden in luggage.

Baby turtles are taped in to their shells and shoved into tube socks, and infant pythons have been shipped in CD cases.

In one case, a man who was arrested at the Los Angeles airport had Asian leopard cats in a backpack, birds of paradise in additional luggage, and pygmy monkeys in his underwear. Their chances of survival? “We have a mortality of about 80 or 90 percent,” says a German customs agent. Source

Exotic animals can suffer further at the hands of dealers who sell to unscrupulous pet stores and zoos.

PETA’s undercover investigation of U.S. Global Exotics resulted in a raid of the dealer’s Arlington, Texas, warehouse and the seizure of more than 27,000 animals who had been subjected to crowded living conditions, poor ventilation, and a lack of food, water, and basic care. More than 400 iguanas (half of whom died) had been left in shipping crates for about two weeks without food or water because of a cancelled order. Hundreds of dead animals were discovered during the raid, and more than 6,000 died afterwards because they were too ill to be saved. Source.

Image: Highway police discovered 78 young parrots trapped without food or water in the backseat and trunk of a car in southeastern Brazil in 2011. Two men were fined about $5,000


Image: In India, sloth bears are taken from the wild, pierced through the muzzle, and trained to perform dances. This is a 400-year-old practice

It is no surprise  these animals have low survival rates and suffer from fear, anxiety, behavioural issues, hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, and disease. Transportation lone can take several weeks!

Image: A man in handcuffs crouches next to dead pangolins seized by authorities in Guangzhou, China, in 2014. Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal, over-exploited for their meat and scales. Source

Over 300, 000 exotic/smuggled animals were confiscated on entry to the USA over the past decade. However, this does not mean that the animals have been rescued.

One case involving hundreds of sugar gliders (small marsupials endemic to Australia), were intercepted at the Schiphol airport, in Amsterdam. Not knowing what to do with the animals, Dutch authorities disposed of them, still alive, in an industrial shredder.

Another case involved a baby chimpanzee and a gorilla intercepted by Egyptian authorities in Cairo. Worried that the apes might carry Ebola, the authorities drowned them in an acid bath.

Image: A typical sugar glider. Source

Animals ripped from their habitat suffer, of course. They are smuggled in thermoses and nylon stockings, stuffed into toilet paper tubes, hair curlers and hubcaps. At one market in Ecuador, I was offered a parakeet. I asked the seller how I would get it on an airplane. “Give it vodka and put it in your pocket,” he said. “It will be quiet.” Source

It is quite clear many animals suffer for the pleasure of others, and the consequences are devastating.


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What Are the Consequences?

The consequences of illegal wildlife smuggling is first and foremost with the poor animals.

These animals are often in pain and end up dying from malnutrition, loneliness, and the overwhelming stress of confinement to an unnatural and uncomfortable environment.

For every animal who makes it to the store or the auction, countless others die along the way. The head of South Africa’s Western Cape Environmental Crime Investigation unit estimates that 90 percent of exported reptiles die within a year!

Image: An Indonesian wildlife smuggler caught with an endangered baby orangutan hidden in a backpack is going to jail. A court in Medan, North Sumatra, sentenced Vast Haris Nasution to two years in prison for trading in orangutans, according to Agence France-Presse. Source

Ecosystems are put at risk from this barbaric industry with exotic animals being released in t the local habitat, or escaping in to the wild.

A key example of this is the red-eared terrapins (Trachemys scripta) that were popular as pets in the 1990’s following the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlescraze. Hatchlings imported into the UK were small and cute, but owners soon found that the size adult turtles grew to was unmanageable, and many individuals were released into lakes and rivers (a crime under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). These hardy creatures can live 40+ years, and caused havoc for our local wildlife (frogs, fish, and even ducklings) which they preyed upon. Source

Image: Malaysian customs foiled an attempt to smuggle hundreds of the world’s most endangered tortoises into the country from Madagascar. Source

The physical, nutritional, and behavioural needs of these animals are far too complex for the home environment, and many individuals end up relinquished in a poor state to welfare charities like Monkey World in Dorset. Reptile species require specific temperatures and humidity levels that are difficult to replicate, and parrot species have high demands for companionship and environmental complexity. Source

Another consequence is the impact of exotic animal diseases on the human race.

The monkeypox outbreak that affected dozens of people in the Midwest USA in 2003 was traced to a Gambian rat from Africa. Prairie dogs also have been known to carry the plague.

The herpes B virus can be transferred from macaques to humans.

The spread of animal-borne disease affects humans and threatens indigenous wildlife and ecosystems. According to the United States Government Accountability Office, nearly 75% of emerging diseases that reach humans come from animals.

For example, the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is suspected to have originated in the China due to contact between a civets (wildcats common in Chinese trade) and humans.

The Avian Flu (H5N1) virus can infect humans through contact with infected crested hawks, other wild birds and poultry.

The National Geographic reports that for every tiger or lion trapped in a zoo, “there may be as many as 10 privately owned.

There have been dozens of captive big-cat attacks in recent years, including incidents in which a tiger mauled his guardian’s 3-year-old grandson, a lion killed several dogs and trapped a boy in his room, and a Bengal tiger tore off the arm of a 4-year-old boy.

Keeping wild animals is not a good idea!

Image: Police rescued four tiger and lion cubs that they said were being smuggled to India on November 13, 2017. Source


Image: Afghan border police forces have foiled an attempt by the smugglers to transfer at least six lions to Pakistan. Source

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What Is Being Done to Stop This?

The WWF is committed to stamping out the illegal wildlife trade. It threatens the future of some of the world’s rarest species.

Through their global network and the work of coalition group TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, WWF helps combat the illegal trade and encourages sustainable legal trade.

Their work on illegal wildlife trade is structured around on four pillars:

  1. Stop the poaching by increasing wildlife stewardship – for example by local communities – and strengthening field protection for example by training anti-poaching patrols;
  2. Stop the trafficking by promoting action to expose and suppress trafficking;
  3. Stop the buying by encouraging initiatives to reduce consumer demand; and
  4. Boost international policy by mobilising policy response at an international level to stimulate the creation and implementation of laws and actions for the fight against wildlife crime


The Stop Wildlife Trafficking Movement (Wild Aid) is doihttp://www.wwf.eu/what_we_do/wildlife_trafficking2/ng all it can to help.

The UK is well-known for having some of the world’s most stringent legislation when it comes to animal welfare; however there are problems when it comes to pet vending that need to be addressed. Laws relating to the import of animals into the UK support the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), an agreement between countries on tackling wildlife trafficking, yet the sheer demand for certain exotic species fuels smuggling. Many species are seized at airports, but others can slip through with forged CITES permits, and there are even cases of snakes being attached around belts and birds stuffed into tubes! Source

Never buy exotic animals from dealers or pet shops. Animal shelters and rescue groups are filled with dogs and cats who need good homes, check out sunflowermaids.com. Support legislation that would make owning exotic animals illegal in your community and prohibit the interstate sale of exotic animals.

If you are concerned about the welfare of an exotic animal in your community, contact your local humane society. Sometimes animal control officials only conduct investigations after they receive complaints from neighbours. Source

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Wildlife Smuggling Stories

There are thousands of smuggling stories online, some of which have been detailed in this article. Here is a few more as a reminder f what these poor animals go through.

Moscow: Customs officials seized eight rare and endangered gyrfalcons from a passenger who attempted to smuggle them out of Russia in duffel bags. The birds were sent to IFAW’s raptor rehabilitation center in Moscow to be cared for until they are strong enough to be returned to the wild.


Cairo: Security authorities managed to stop a passenger who had attempted to smuggle 41 peregrine falcons into Bahrain. To prevent the birds from opening their eyes and panicking, the smugglers stitched their eyes closed with surgical threads. IFAW has conducted over 45 anti-trafficking trainings with customs, police, and wildlife enforcement officers in North Africa and the Middle East to build their capacity to effectively discover and confiscate smuggled wildlife in the region.


Vietnam: A dead pangolin floats inside a large jar of tea or another liquid to be consumed as a delicacy. Pangolins have the unfortunate distinction of being the most poached and illegally traded mammal in the world. Over one million pangolins have been poached and trafficked in the last ten years alone. Fortunately, at last year’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), IFAW worked tirelessly with partners to secure protections for all eight species of pangolins and prohibit their international commercial trade.


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What Other Animal Cruelty Happens And What Else Can Be Done To Stop It?

If you would like to learn more about why we so urgently need to help stop animal suffering, please have a look at the Types Of Animal Cruelty section of this site. This section will allow you to broaden your knowledge of many different types of animal abuse that happens in the world.

Sadly, what you will find is only the tip of the iceberg, but do not worry, because in the Help Stop Animal Cruelty section of this site, you can find a large and varied choice of ways that you can help stop the suffering. Have a look and see what ways would most suit you.


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