10 Things Poachers Don’t Want You to Know about Wildlife Trafficking


In the last 15 years, poaching and the illegal trade of wildlife have accelerated, hurtling through the world’s last wild places like a train we can’t stop. Wildlife trafficking (the illegal poaching, taking, and/or trade of protected or managed species and their parts or products) removes millions of animals and plants from the wild annually. As many people know, this includes elephants and rhinos. But traffickers illegally capture a diversity of irreplaceable species – rare butterflies and baby cheetahs, mahogany trees and hummingbirds, sea turtles and parrots – and sell them as meat, pets, traditional medicine or décor. Here’s what poachers don’t want you to know about this multi-billion-dollar criminal industry: 

1. Wildlife trafficking causes species extinctions and declines. Recent casualties of the illegal wildlife trade include:  

  • Spix’s macaws (featured in the movie Rio), extinct in the wild since 2018 largely due to the international pet trade;  

  • northern white rhinos, with the last male (named Sudan) dying in Kenya in 2018; and 
  • Yangtze giant softshell turtles, with the last known female dying in China in 2019. 

These losses are consistent with a larger trend: Overharvesting is a primary driver of bird and mammal extinctions since 1500. 

A small turtle that is black and yellow sitting in clover
Bog turtles are one of North America’s smallest turtles. In addition to habitat loss, these turtles are threatened by the illegal pet trade. Photo by Gary Peeples, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

2. It threatens U.S. species. An alarming number of turtles, cacti and other species from the United States are illicitly shipped to Asia and other regions, depleting our local wildlife. Wildlife inspectors and law enforcement officers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work to interrupt this illegal practice and are often successful at disrupting organized transnational crime, but can't catch all illegal activity.

43 dead colorful birds lined up on a hard surface
Asian songbirds frequently die while being trafficked. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

3. Many animals die in transit. Stuffed into hair curlers or taped into suitcases, live birds and reptiles in the illegal pet trade often don’t survive the journey. For example, 75% of parrots captured in Mexico for the illegal pet trade die in transit, according to one study. This suggests that for every live illegal parrot available to buyers, 3 never even made it to market.  

A monkey's face looks at the camera
A rescued Geoffrey’s spider monkey in a rehabilitation center in Belize. It’s rare that trafficked animals can be introduced back into the wild, as this monkey will be. Photo by Levi Novey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

4. Once an animal is taken out of the wild, it is almost impossible to return. Even if law enforcement officials intercept live animals, the stars have to align to return them to the wild: Officials must know where they are from, how to get them there, and how to ensure safety for the individual, other wildlife and humans. This is rarely possible. So instead, zoos and other wildlife rescue groups struggle to provide lifelong care for these critters, in facilities already at capacity. In some cases, confiscated wild animals can neither be released nor properly cared for in captivity, and they must be euthanized.

A man at work in a blue full body hazmat suit is surrounded by laboratory equipment
A doctor works on a primate Ebola study at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Photo by U.S. Army.    

5. Wildlife trafficking threatens not just wildlife, but human health and government stability. The illegal wildlife trade opens doors for viruses and other pathogens to jump from animals to humans. Further, wildlife trafficking – sometimes spurred by corruption and other illicit trade – undermines the government stability of countries around the world.

two stuffed alligators on stands and a butterfly in a jar representing the wildlife market
Souvenirs made from wildlife in Peru. Photo by Richard Ruggerio, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

6. Americans can unknowingly buy illegal wildlife products on vacation. Once travel resumes, these guidelines might help for future trips to the Caribbean, Alaska, or elsewhere. Check out the "Be Informed, Buy Informed" video as a useful resource to identifying what you should bring home.   

7. Reducing demand is the only surefire way to stop poaching. Reducing the world’s demand for illegal wildlife species and products might be our most powerful long-term strategy to protect species. Law enforcement alone cannot stop wildlife trafficking. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service International Affairs Program supports projects around the globe to reduce consumer demand for illegal wildlife. For example, in Cambodia, the USFWS Combating Wildlife Trafficking program and San Diego Zoo Global work together to drive down demand for illegal products from Asian bears.    

A cheetah stares back at the camera
Cheetah trafficking is increasing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Combating Wildlife Trafficking Branch has partnered with Colorado State University to counter the illegal trade of cheetahs in east Africa. 
Photo by Ronda Gregorio, Smithsonian’s National Zoo. 

8. Upholding an international treaty called CITES makes trafficking harder for poachers. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international treaty that aims to protect wildlife from unsustainable and/or illegal trade. A total of 182 countries and the European Union support CITES, which is administered by the United Nations Environment Programme; the United States was the first to sign the agreement in 1973. But the treaty does not protect species unless its policies are fully implemented and enforced around the world. The USFWS International Affairs Program collaborates with Malaysia, Angola, Kazakhstan, and many other countries to help them comply with the treaty. Wherever the Convention is upheld, wildlife trafficking becomes too risky for poachers to pursue.

A small alligator in a hand with a law enforcement badge showing behind it
A confiscated baby alligator. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

9. It’s often very difficult to care for illegal pets. Many animals in the illegal trade die within the first year of capture from stress and inadequate care. Caring for exotic illegal pets can also be extremely expensive and difficult, as many species have specialized needs that cannot be easily met in captivity. Don’t be a part of the illegal pet trade. When buying a new pet: (1) Check to see if the species is protected under international law (search by scientific name). (2) Check to see if the species is prohibited under state law. (3) Ask for documentation, and ensure animals are legally obtained.

A cowboy boot made of turtle skin with intricate design
A sea turtle skin boot is an example of an item that is illegal to buy or sell. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

10. Much of the illegal wildlife trade is now online. You can report it. Traffickers are increasingly using social media platforms to sell illegal species and products. If you suspect that wildlife trafficking is occurring (whether online or not), you can report it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.     

Poachers may not want you to know this information, but now you do. You can help a great deal by spreading the word about wildlife trafficking and helping us put a stop to illegal activity.