Inside the Illegal Wildlife Trade of Wild Cat Parts

By Kelly Carton
Lead Integrated Content Strategist

Tiger in pond

Wildlife crime and trafficking have ballooned to a multi-billion-dollar industry that is now one of the top five most lucrative illegal trades globally. The criminal networks vary by region, ranging from informal local markets to highly organized criminal operations with multiple levels. While big cats have long been poached for their skin, bones, fangs and other body parts, poachers are increasingly targeting small wild cats, including clouded leopards, servals and other small cat species. Read on to discover how the illegal wildlife trade is threatening leopards, servals, clouded leopards and tigers — and the solutions Panthera is implementing.

Serval camera trap

Saving Leopard and Serval Spots 

Communities have long felt a cultural connection with leopards, viewing the species as a symbol of strength, courage and grace. Servals, small cats that have equally beautiful coats and grace, are also increasingly harvested for their fur. This reverence for wild cats contributes to the largest demand source for cat skins in Southern Africa: ceremonial attire. In Zambia, the Barotse Royal Establishment (BRE) of the Lozi people traditionally wore leopard and serval fur skirts and lion mane head pieces during significant annual ceremonies. Although the exact number of wild cat skins used is difficult to determine, Panthera estimated that garments worn by 200 paddlers in the 2018 ceremony consisted of skins from approximately 150 leopards and 800 servals. 

In 2019, Panthera created the Saving Spots Initiative in partnership with the BRE. We developed highly realistic synthetic garments, Heritage Furs, which preserve the Lozi people’s rich cultural tradition while protecting declining wild cat populations. In the 2022 ceremony, 80 percent of paddlers wore Heritage Furs and a similar number of attendees expressed approval in a survey. The latest data from Zambia’s Greater Kafue Ecosystem, where leopards are primarily targeted for garments, show an upward trend in leopard populations within four of the five study areas. Strong endorsement and shared ownership from community leaders are central to the Initiative’s success.

Clouded leopard in front of camera trap
©sebastian kennerknecht

A Small Cat in Big Demand 

Because the demand for tiger parts far outweighs the supply, with only 4,500 wild tigers remaining, poachers often turn to other wild cats like clouded leopards. Parts from clouded leopards, like bones, teeth and claws, may even be passed off as tiger products in the traditional medicine trade. Clouded leopards are the third-most trafficked cat in Southeast Asia, according to a 2016 report by the UN Office of Drugs and Crimes. In addition to being sold for parts, one study conducted by Panthera and partners found that live clouded leopards are the second most traded wild cat species in the illegal pet trade, after fishing cats.  

In Sabah, Malaysia, a stronghold for Sunda clouded leopards, Panthera offers a range of complementary solutions. We partner with the Sabah Forestry and Wildlife Departments as well as local community rangers to bolster wildlife protection activities. SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) software enables our team and partners to monitor, report and evaluate site protection activities at critical poaching hotspots and is currently the leading global conservation tool. Robust data from SMART enables us to paint a picture of threats facing clouded leopards. Together with partners and community members, we’re aiming to prevent more clouded leopards from falling victim to the illegal wildlife trade.

Tiger staring
©karin saucedo

The Most Highly Trafficked Big Cat 

For over 40 years, tigers have been listed under Appendix I by CITES, the strictest designation that prohibits all international trade of their parts. Regardless, poaching for the illegal wildlife trade has helped contribute to a steep decline in the global tiger population in the last century. Every part of a tiger is desirable in traditional medicine, from its skin to its bones, enabling poachers to fetch up to $50,000 for a single tiger, which is multiple times the average annual salary in some tiger range countries. 

Panthera’s Tigers Forever Program implements security systems in ten sites across five countries. Crime problem analysis has enabled our team to identify poaching hotspots, build criminal profiles and intervene, leading to the disruption of poaching networks and multiple arrests — ultimately preventing the illegal poaching of tigers and their prey. To create lasting change at these sites, we’ve invested in strengthening local wild cat protection capacity, training over 600 rangers and law enforcement professionals. Trainings give a comprehensive overview of successful wildlife law enforcement, from patrolling to conducting crime scene investigations to utilizing enforcement technology and monitoring our progress using SMART. As a result of these efforts, six of these sites show evidence of stable or increasing populations and high survival rates for individual tigers. Together with partners, we are catalyzing a comprehensive effort to protect tigers from poaching. 

The threat of the illegal wildlife trade is centuries old, but new solutions are enabling Panthera and our partners to make headway for wild cats. We take a unique approach in each of the landscapes in which we operate, from collaborating with communities to design innovative synthetic furs, to leveraging best-in-class software to monitor threats, to building local capacity through comprehensive training. Together with partners, we’re mobilizing a powerful movement against the illegal wildlife trade. 

Read last month’s blog on biodiversity loss and stay tuned for more on the threats facing wild cats — as well as the solutions.