Q&A: The Illegal Wildlife Trade

By Panthera

Tigers running

With the dire threats of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade facing some of the world’s most iconic wild cats, a dedicated team on the ground is needed to protect them. Luckily, Panthera has assembled a committed group of researchers and rangers to safeguard highly threatened cats such as tigers from poaching. We spoke with Dr. Robert Pickles, Panthera Counter-Wildlife Crime Research & Analytics Lead, to discuss poaching, the illegal wildlife trade and the challenges they pose to wild cats. 

Who, or what, is creating the demand for wild cat parts?  

RP: The short answer is that different groups of people consume wild cats for a variety of reasons in some form if they have the finances and the opportunity. Addressing trade in wild cats requires us to understand the nature of each trade problem in detail to identify how to make it harder and riskier for poachers, traders and consumers to be involved or remove the excuses of aggrieved farmers or people conducting traditional practices through anti-predation support and provision of alternatives. We have success stories to build on, and despite the challenges ahead, we will continue to help reduce trade in wild cats and their products.   

Have humans always sought out wild cat parts?  

RP: People and wild cats have a long and intertwined history. From fossil skulls of ancient hominids showing puncture marks from leopard canines in the Rift Valley to the drawings of cave lions in Lascaux during the Ice Age, we’ve been present in each other's lives for a long time, coexisting, competing and sometimes consuming one another. The power, prowess and beauty of wild cats captivated our ancestors and captivates us today. Aztec warriors clothed themselves in jaguar skins, cats were worshipped as protective gods in Ancient Egypt and starting three thousand years ago in Ancient China, tiger bones were consumed as health-giving tonic. 

cats were worshipped as protective gods in Ancient Egypt.

The desire to possess an object of beauty, the prestige of owning something rare and dangerous, the thrill of the hunt, the supposed medical properties and the deeper spiritual power of the animal are recurrent themes across the globe where people live in the presence of wild cats.   

Today, with a globally connected human population of 8 billion, there are better methods for hunting and trapping cats, more people can afford to purchase cat products and it is faster and easier to connect a willing hunter to a buyer. 

In the last century, Western big game hunters decimated tiger populations in India.

 Markets and desires for wild cat products continue to shift and evolve. In the last century, Western big game hunters decimated tiger populations in India and lions in southern Africa for the thrill of the hunt and the trophies to mount on their walls at home. While this has waned and been regulated, “sport hunting” of wild cats occurs across the globe both legally and illegally.  Here is a brief history of the demand for wild cat parts: 

1960s: The tourism boom began, and tourists began increasingly visiting exotic destinations to purchase curios and trinkets using wild cat parts. 

1950s–1970s: A booming fur for fashion industry in post-war Europe and North America triggered a killing spree, particularly of spotted and striped cats, which was stopped by a combination of trade bans and intense pressure from animal rights groups that made fur wearing socially unacceptable. 

1990s–2000s: As the economies of Vietnam and China grew, more people could afford wild cat products that were previously the preserve of the elites. This led to poaching waves that caused the extinction of tigers in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Meanwhile, China’s Belt and Road development projects have brought willing buyers into close proximity with hunters in Africa and South America, opening new markets and triggering targeted killing of jaguars, lions and leopards.  

2013–2023: In some parts of southern Africa, the decline in leopard populations is reversing because of the adoption of alternative synthetic skins by local communities, which preserves their tradition at the same time.  There, skins from wild cats like leopards have been used in ceremonial attire for millennia, with a demand that had been causing leopard populations to decline.  

Among the new trends, we are seeing a rise in wild cats as exotic pets and status symbols within drug trafficking organizations in South America or the nouveau rich in the Middle East, Bangladesh and India. 

livestock predation is often a precursor to trade.

One recurrent theme is that as a nation develops, there is a surge in wildlife consumption as access and cash become available. This then wanes over time as the human population becomes better educated and those opportunities are closed. Another global theme is that livestock predation is often a precursor to trade. Farmers begin by shooting and trapping wild cats as pests and then intensify efforts once connected to traders providing cash incentives.  

What are the greatest barriers in the fight to protect wild cats against poaching? 

RP: You can’t solve “wild cat poaching,” but you can solve specific poaching problems. “Lion killing by poisoned carcasses by farmers protecting their cattle” is a very different problem than “shooting leopards for their skins for use in traditional ceremonies”. Each problem involves different places, times, people and motives. Unpacking each problem allows us to find an intervention that is best suited to reducing the problem, whether that’s anti-predation support for farmers or synthetic furs for ceremonies. Doing that requires investment in analysts and moving away from a purely reactive protection model to one based on preventing poaching. Law enforcement agencies are not geared up to do this well, and even within conventional policing, crime analysts remain a rarity in many places. Although rangers play a critical role in counter-poaching, when teams don’t examine a poaching problem in enough depth, it can lead to over-reliance on deterring poachers through arrest and prosecution. Phrases like the “fight to protect wild cats” implies a battle between good and bad, which necessitates a ”tough on crime” policy that closes off options while often failing to deter poaching.  

Do you think we will ever be able to end poaching for the illegal wildlife trade? 

RP: While it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to end all poaching, we can reduce specific poaching problems and the harm it does to specific populations of wildlife. Wild populations can sustain a certain level of hunting without causing the global population to decline, but how much will depend on the species and the size of the population. Wild cats, which often have small litters of offspring with long periods between reproduction, can only tolerate a low level of hunting compared to fast-breeding species. If we can keep poaching below the threshold where it causes population decline, we give the population the best chance of making it through the next decades and preserve its ecological function.

Puma kitten
Wild cats, which often have small litters of offspring with long periods between reproduction, can only tolerate a low level of hunting compared to fast-breeding species.

What can I do to help stop the illegal wildlife trade? 

RP: Here are a few ideas: 

  1. Become a vegetarian, or if you can’t, then drastically reduce your beef intake and double-check where it was farmed. Deforestation for cattle grazing or soy crops to feed cattle is tightly connected to the illegal wildlife trade, particularly in Central and South America. For example, once a slice of forest is converted to cattle pasture, killing of jaguars and their prey around the farm often increases. As farmers connect with traders who sell jaguar body parts, killing intensifies. In other parts of Central America, drug trafficking organizations have diversified into beef production, illegally clearing forest to create pasture. Some of these organizations are also now directly involved in wildlife smuggling. One of the single biggest actions we can take for the planet is to become vegetarian, or if you’re a meat-lover like me, then try and shrink your weekly meat intake by half and try to source meat from more sustainable sources, such as local grass-fed beef raised in areas where forest has not been cleared.
  2. Make serious efforts to reduce your own carbon footprint, and vote for politicians supporting carbon-neutral agendas. Climate change is the greatest threat to all species on Earth. It is making farming unproductive and affecting livelihoods, which forces people to find other sources of income and increases the chance of exploiting wildlife populations. At the same time, governments dealing with climate disasters eat up more tax dollars, with less available to assist stressed communities. This can lead to societal instability and erosion of security and governmental control, something we see occurring in the most climate-stressed parts of the globe. In that context, criminal enterprises, including the wildlife trade, can flourish while national laws become harder to uphold. 
  3. Stay clear of pet stores and don’t accidentally normalize the wildlife trade. Pet stores trade in animals, many of which are bred legally in captivity, but be very wary about exotic species. The industry is rife with laundering animals of wild origin, particularly reptiles, amphibians and songbirds. A trend we see occurring again and again is that people who know how to trade in wildlife legally know how to fiddle the books and exploit loopholes to also make money trading in illegal wildlife. Finally, when planning a zoo visit, look for local WAZA, EAZA, AZA and other accredited zoos. Fact-check wildlife “rescue centers” and ask what they are actually doing for the conservation of wild species. Most private collections of big cats and other exotic species serve no benefit for wild populations, and some are complicit in laundering wild animals.
once a slice of forest is converted to cattle pasture, killing of jaguars and their prey around the farm often increases.

Learn more about the illegal wildlife trade.