Focusing on Wildlife Crime

By John M. Sellar, O.B.E. 
Close-up of a tiger.

During a recent briefing to the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council on emerging challenges to international peace and security, the head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (ODC) presented wildlife crime as an issue.1 Considering this level of attention, the law enforcement community should give the problem a higher priority. But, do policing agencies understand the nature of wildlife crime. 

Defining the Problem

Established in 2010 the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) consists of a coalition between the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), INTERPOL, ODC, the World Bank, and the World Customs Organization. It provides coordinated support to national law enforcement agencies that investigate wildlife crimes and to subregional and regional networks that defend natural resources daily. ICCWC has offered valuable guidance.

“Wildlife” means all fauna and flora. “Fauna” are animals and birds, such as tigers and falcons, but also include fish. “Flora” are plants, such as orchids or cacti, but also include timber and nontimber forest products, some of which are illegally traded at very significant levels.

“Crime” refers to acts committed contrary to national laws and regulations intended to protect natural resources and to administer their management and use. This may start with the illicit exploitation of natural resources, such as the poaching of an elephant, uprooting of a rare orchid, unauthorized logging of trees, or unlicensed netting of sturgeons. It also may include subsequent acts, such as the processing of fauna and flora into products, their transportation, offer for sale, sale, possession.... It also includes the concealment and laundering of the financial benefits made out of these crimes. Some of these crimes will take place solely in the country of origin, whilst others also will occur in the country of destination, where live fauna or flora specimens, or their parts and derivatives, are finally consumed.2

Article 2 of the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime contains further useful definitions.

a) “Organized criminal group” shall mean a structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offenses established in accordance with this Convention, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit;

b) “Serious crime” shall mean conduct constituting an offense punishable by a maximum deprivation of liberty of at least 4 years or a more serious penalty.

Given the number of people often necessary to conduct wildlife crime, the first definition appears fulfilled. However, the second causes considerable problems for some countries because their national legislation dealing with wildlife crime—for example, the smuggling of endangered species—does not include any term of imprisonment as a sentencing option. In some nations it does not even constitute a crime, but only an administrative matter where a monetary penalty will be imposed, perhaps, by a customs officer.

Mr. Sellar has served in many law enforcement capacities with both the Scottish Police Service and the United Nations and is a recognized authority in the area of wildlife crime.
Mr. Sellar has served in many law enforcement capacities with both the Scottish Police Service and the United Nations and is a recognized authority in the area of wildlife crime.

In addition to definitions and legal considerations, authorities’ and the public’s perception of the seriousness and organization of these crimes proves equally or, perhaps, more important in view of resource allocation. Societies know that drug trafficking is widespread, grave, and problematic for judicial systems and the populace because the media regularly report on drug masterminds and cartels going to jail. However, people generally have not heard news sources focusing on a major Mafia figure incarcerated because of the controlling and smuggling of tiger bones. So, individuals have to look elsewhere for such illustrations of illegal activity while bearing in mind that much of today’s organized crime does not involve such recognized groups or networks as Cosa Nostra, the Triads, or the Yakuza.


As their name suggests, Tibetan antelopes live on the plateaus of western China in Tibet and its neighboring provinces. To protect them from their harsh environment—at altitudes of over 3 miles—they have a coat of hair. In recent years poachers have killed tens of thousands of them for this fur. Smuggled across the border to Jammu and Kashmir in northern India, the hair then is processed, spun into shawls, and sold for up to the equivalent of over $35,000 each under the name shahtoosh, a Persian term meaning “king of wools.” Such scenarios happen around the world. 

The criminals who organize and fund such illegal harvesting seldom live in the animals’ and plants’ habitats. They typically lack the knowledge and skills necessary to acquire them. So, when seeking, for example, elephant ivory, they recruit local tribesmen whose ancestors have tracked and taken game for centuries.

Carver at an ivory factory in Guangzhou.
Carver at an ivory factory in Guangzhou.

For instance, of the national parks located on the Tibetan Plateau, the best known is Kekexili. Its size—approximately that of Switzerland—makes poaching, as well as antipoaching, a challenge. Usually, recruited gangs of 15 to 20 men using 3 to 4 off-road vehicles carry out the poaching. Members of these groups tend to have specialties, such as driving, shooting, skinning, or cooking.

The sparse populations of the plateaus generally consist of yak herdsmen who cannot afford the equipment necessary for structured poaching. When conducting these activities, they may spend up to a month inside the park’s boundaries, and, so, they need to carry appropriate quantities of fuel and food and many thousands of rounds of ammunition for their automatic and semiautomatic weapons. Criminals who recruit these individuals for the work provide the necessary funds and also coordinate the smuggling and onward trade after the harvesting of illegal goods, such as antelope hides.3

The exploitation goes further. The poachers usually receive pay amounting to far less than the target’s worth, be it ivory, rhino horn, tiger skin, timber, or rare orchids. Criminals will encourage them to work at times of the day or seasons of the year when the poachers traditionally may not enter the bush, forest, or jungle. Consequently, the recruits face an increased risk of animal attack, malaria, or dengue fever, as well as the serious injury, death, or lengthy jail terms that may result from their encounters with antipoaching authorities.

When apprehended, few poachers enjoy the legal resources that individuals formally employed by organized crime organizations have. Most frontline wildlife criminals find themselves abandoned to their fate by their recruiters. Conversely, the few poachers serving as organized crime employees can find more fortune. For example, in India police and prosecutors have observed with astonishment when a tiger poacher from a rural village has representation by an experienced advocate from New Delhi.

Criminals also aim to exploit situations where the rule of law has broken down or governance lacks. Such areas, including Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Sudan, have seen the escalation of elephant poaching. DRC has had its rhinoceros populations wiped out. At one point, rebel groups threatened to kill more great apes if authorities continued to interfere with illegal harvests. In parts of Myanmar that border China and almost are autonomous and illicitly outside central government control, illegal wildlife trade, apparently, takes place unhindered and sometimes even is taxed by rebel leaders.4 

Not surprisingly, criminals regularly target law enforcement personnel for violence. For instance, 140 rangers have been killed in DRC’s Virunga National Park since 1996.5 Further, patrol staff of the Kenya Wildlife Service regularly encounter elephant poachers who cross the Somalian border, armed with rocket-propelled grenades.

A rhinoceros on the ground.


Organized crime groups use sophisticated techniques and routes to smuggle their illegal goods. For example, traffickers of ivory and rhino horn bake specimens inside clay figures or stain them to resemble wood. To smuggle up to 6 tons of ivory per container, they create hidden compartments—invisible to the naked eye and detectable only through X-ray screening—inside sea-going cargo containers.6 Specially designed routes exploit ports by employing limited screening facilities and using several transit and transhipment points to conceal the true country of origin. 

CITES regulates much of the international trade in wildlife. This involves permits and certificates, some of which bear specialized stamps as an extra security measure. There is a long history of abuse of such documents. They are counterfeited, or genuine permits are altered. Fake air waybills and cargo manifests conceal the true content of shipments or country of origin. Because border control officers may not easily recognize individual countries’ permits and certificates (despite an internationally adopted format), criminals regularly exploit this area of fraud.

Further, much of the wildlife contraband smuggled around the world is consigned to companies and addresses that either do not exist or serve purely for the period of transport. Front companies with elaborate false credentials conceal the illicit origin of animals, plants, and products.

Senior and midlevel organized crime figures also minimize risk by recruiting couriers to transport illegally harvested contraband within countries or across international borders. Many different types of couriers prove effective. Elderly tourists’ baggage faces little scrutiny by customs or port security staff. Airline personnel, some of whom regularly have engaged in smuggling caviar from Eastern Europe to North America, also benefit from a low level of screening at airports. Baggage handlers can, at the last minute, surreptitiously load and offload luggage and cargo, thus, avoiding customs inspection. Foreign students receive free air tickets and pocket money to visit their home countries, with the proviso that they smuggle wildlife in their luggage. And, under their voluminous dresses and saris, female couriers—who regularly transport the skins of endangered big cats, such as tigers and snow leopards—cross land borders, such as those connecting India, Nepal, and China, because of cultural norms and few female border control personnel, which reduce the likelihood of body searches.

A large quantity of raw ivory, sometimes up to several hundred kilos, is smuggled via the checked-in luggage of couriers. Because the extra weight causes total passenger bags to grossly exceed allowances, such trafficking often accompanies the corruption of airline ground staff.

In some cases, rather than smuggling their goods, criminals may decide to keep them. Colombian drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar built up a private zoo of exotic species.7 In another instance, during a surveillance operation by Italy’s Carabinieri antimafia units, dons and other senior crime figures attending a birthday party served huge quantities of caviar during a period when no legal international trade took place. Heads of organized crime groups and warlords in Eastern Europe have kept tigers and bears as pets. These are used not only as status symbols but to intimidate people.

When successful in capturing these criminals, authorities often find that persons detained in connection with illegal trade in wildlife have extensive convictions for other crimes, such as drug trafficking and, perhaps, violence. Further, these persons may have been convicted in several different countries around the world.

“Organized crime groups use sophisticated techniques and routes to smuggle their illegal goods.”

Illegal ivory sale in Panjiayuan Market in Beijing.
Illegal ivory sale in Panjiayuan Market, Beijing.

Spreading Corruption 

Not surprisingly, these criminals rely on others’ illegal acts to help carry out these activities. For instance, judges receive bribes in exchange for granting bail or reaching not guilty verdicts, and prosecutors drop cases and hide or dispose of evidence to receive payment. In many countries, antipoaching personnel, such as forest guards or game or wildlife wardens, must hand arrestees over to the police to be kept in custody and reported for prosecution. This provides another avenue for organized crime to subvert; police subject to corruption may release prisoners or state that there is insufficient evidence to bring poachers or dealers to court.8

Officials around the world responsible for border security and import and export controls face bribes to facilitate or ignore the smuggling of endangered species and wildlife products. Personnel in one country may seize wildlife contraband shipments and notice official seals from another nation, which supposedly guarantee that the contents have been checked and declared bona fide.

In the early 2000s, when millions of dollars’ worth of poached caviar entered international markets from the Caspian region through a Middle East nation, local authorities received prostitutes in return for issuing false certificates. Criminals also have tried to compromise officials during assessment missions to countries.

In some developing nations, high-level authorities actually control profitable wildlife crime enterprises. Persons of status receive encouragement to use their influence to interfere with enforcement operations or prosecutions.

In at least one country in Far East Asia, law enforcement officials cannot execute a search warrant before notifying a local mayor’s office in advance. Not surprisingly, police sometimes arrive at the relevant address to find its cupboards bare. In parts of the Middle East, sheikhs and crown princes have traded illegally in falcons and built up large private collections of exotic species, all imported without the necessary permits, veterinary inspections, or mandatory periods of quarantine.

An illegally imported orangutan in Cambodia.


Because some wildlife products, such as rhinoceros horn, often can attract higher values than heroin, firearms, gold, or diamonds, this, in itself, acts as a magnet for organized crime groups and networks. After all, their raison d’être is to acquire large sums of money. Illegal trade in wildlife also often presents excellent opportunities for money laundering, and there is good reason to believe that some organized crime groups, additionally, may be investing in and stockpiling specific wildlife products, such as elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn.

In some cases criminals even establish fake companies advertising exotic species to obtain payments upfront while having no intention to supply wildlife. Front companies are created, for example, when advertising illicit products and specimens via the Internet or targeting collectors. In a similar vein, specialist chat rooms and e-mail groups (such as several used by herpetologists or orchid growers) are infiltrated. Counterfeit documents often distributed via e-mail attachments commonly feature in these activities.

In some parts of the world, organized crime groups have not yet become involved in illegal harvest or trade in wildlife. But, they control or monitor criminal activities within their own areas. As a result, they will expect a share from those engaged in what they may view as minor crime. For example, as a general belief, the Russian Mafia does not involve itself in the poaching or trade of tiger, leopard, or bear. However, intelligence suggests that the criminals who do seek to move skins and other body parts across the border to China must pay local Mafia groups to access smuggling routes or benefit from Mafia-controlled border control officials.9

At the height of international illegal trade in caviar in the beginning of the 2000s, the processing, treatment, and refrigerated storage of sturgeon eggs; sophisticated counterfeiting of containers and their labels; forgery of permits and security stamps; and air shipment from ports around the Caspian Sea to markets in Europe and North America required finance well beyond the resources of the poachers in ex-Soviet countries. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the yard of one of the Caspian Sea’s apparently “legal” major caviar producers, where thousands of tins of caviar worth millions of rubles were kept in an old railway cargo wagon in a corner of the factory yard next to the river. A simple padlock secured its door. The yard featured no burglar alarm, night lighting, or security guards, despite its location in the major city of a relatively lawless province. Clearly, the factory itself either was owned by organized crime groups, or its operators were paying “protection money.”10


Wildlife crime deserves serious attention and recognition for what it is—highly organized and sophisticated. Ensuring a future for the world’s most endangered species requires many varied approaches. Authorities must consider such factors as habitat loss and the needs of the communities that share those habitats especially because many of the residents of those areas live below the poverty line.

Addressing the INTERPOL General Assembly in 2010, the CITES secretary-general made an important observation: “Law enforcement cannot, on its own, resolve the myriad problems facing species of conservation concern. But, for some species, it quite literally is their last hope, if they are not to disappear from the face of our planet. Their fate lies very much in the hands of you, the commissioners and policy makers of the world’s police agencies. Every time a protected species is poached, every time a skin is smuggled across a border, every time a body part or product enters an illicit market, the conservation community has failed, and we are one step closer to the extinction of that animal in the wild.”11

When people face the burglary of their homes, the insurance company will replace electronics and other valuables. However, once the last snow leopard disappears, the species is gone forever. The war against human, drug, and weapons trafficking is bound to be a long one with many battles along the way. In the case of fauna and flora, just a few lost battles could end in extinction. And, unfortunately, the international response to wildlife crime by politicians, civil servants, and law enforcement policy- and decision-makers has not had the level of organization or sophistication warranted and needed. This needs to change.


1 Yury Fedotov, U.N. Security Council Briefing on Emerging Challenges to International Peace and Security (lecture, November 23, 2011).

2 CITES, “The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime,” (accessed February 25, 2013).

3 Findings of the CITES Secretariat technical mission to China, August 2003.

4 Myanmar customs officer, interview by author, 2008.

5 Press Release, Worldwide Fund for Nature, April 2011.

6 Seizure by customs officers, Singapore, June 2002.

7 Roberto Escobar, The Accountant’s Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellín Cartel (New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2010).

8 Findings of the CITES Secretariat/UNEP GRASP technical mission to Indonesia, May 2006.

9 Officers from the Inspection Tiger Brigade, Vladivostok, interview by author.

10 Personal observation based on the author’s expertise and experience, November 2001.

11 John E. Scanlon, 79th INTERPOL General Assembly (lecture, November 8, 2010). 

“Illegal trade in wildlife...presents...
opportunities for money laundering, and there is good reason to believe that some organized crime
groups...may be investing in and stockpiling...wildlife