This module is a resource for lecturers  


Key issues



There is no single definition of 'wildlife trafficking', 'wildlife and forest crime', or 'illegal trade in wildlife, timber and fish'. Different organizations, national authorities, and authors use a variety of terms to refer to trafficking in wildlife, animal parts, and plants. This is due in part to the fact that there is no general, global instrument setting out a universally accepted definition. National laws employ different terminology depending on their legal system and the specific wildlife, forest, and fisheries crimes they encounter. Many terms such as 'trafficking in fauna and flora' and 'trafficking of wildlife contraband' are used interchangeably and (are meant to) refer to the same phenomenon, including in this Module. Definitions relating to illegal forest activities and illegal logging, as well as to fisheries crimes, are similarly diverse, contested, and often inconsistent (and not further discussed here) (Tacconi, 2017).

'Wildlife' generally refers to wild animals collectively, as opposed to, for instance, domestic animals, pets, farm animals, and animals in captivity. Some sources (including this Module) use the term more broadly to include any wild plant or animal, including marine species, whether it is indigenous or exotic, and any derivative thereof (Bürgener et al, 2001). The terms 'fauna' and 'flora' are usually broader still as they are not limited to wild animals and plants. Wildlife 'trade' encompasses the collection, harvesting, possession, processing, acquisition, or transportation of wildlife for the purpose of purchasing, importing, exporting, selling, bartering, or exchanging (Bürgener et al, 2001).

'Trafficking', in relation to a specimen, means illegal acts by a person, whether for the benefit of themselves or another person, for purposes of importing, exporting, re-exporting, introducing from the sea, dispatching, dispatching in transit, distributing, brokering, offering, keeping for offer, dealing, processing, purchasing, selling, supplying, storing or transporting (UNODC, 2018). In criminology, wildlife trafficking is the specific name of the 'green crime' (a term used to describe crimes against the environment) that involves the illegal trade, smuggling, poaching, capture, or collection of endangered species, protected wildlife (including animals or plants that are subject to harvest quotas and regulated by permits), derivatives, or products thereof.

International organizations, such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), use the term 'wildlife and forest crime' to 'refer to the taking, trading (supplying, selling or trafficking), importing, exporting, processing, possessing, obtaining and consumption of wild fauna and flora, including timber and other forest products, in contravention of national or international law. Broadly speaking, wildlife and forest crime is the illegal exploitation of the world's wild flora and fauna' (UNODC, 2019).

The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) further explains: '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 may also include subsequent acts, such as the processing of wildlife into products, their transportation, offer for sale, sale, possession, etc. 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 will also occur in the country of destination, where live fauna or flora specimens, or their parts and derivatives, are finally consumed' (CITES Secretariat, undated).


CITES and the international trade framework

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ( CITES) provides a framework for international trade in certain species (see also Module 3 of the E4J University Module Series on Organized Crime) and has the objective of protecting particular species against over-exploitation through international trade. CITES it is not an international criminal law treaty and it does not concern purely domestic trade. But since the key criminal threat to wildlife is illicit trade, CITES defines the rules that wildlife traffickers seek to circumvent. CITES does not address all aspects of wildlife crime, but offers the single most coherent approach to this complex topic (UNODC, 2016).

The species that are subject to special protective measures are listed in three appendices according to their vulnerability. This categorization of endangered species under Appendices I and II has the effect that States Parties are barred from allowing trade that is not in compliance with the provisions of CITES (Strydom, 2016). States Parties are further obliged to take certain measures for the enforcement of CITES and the prohibition of trade in contravention of the Convention. The trade in and possession of species listed in the Appendices must be penalized and their confiscation and return to the State of export must be provided for. CITES does not require these violations to be criminal offences. In some countries, CITES violations are sanctioned with administrative fines, while elsewhere, penalties involve imprisonment for several years (UNODC, 2016).


The sub-pages to this section provide a descriptive overview of the key issues for lecturers to cover with their students when teaching on this topic:

Next: Demand and consumption
Back to top