The illegal wildlife trade encompasses all types of live animals ranging from big cats and monkeys to tropical birds and reptiles. Even turtles and exotic fish are caught by poachers and trafficked across regional and international borders to consumers seeking pets, exotic cuisine, and folk medicines made from the bones, brains, teeth, or other parts of unique species. Individuals, regional syndicates, and transnational organizations (PDF) around the world participate in the illegal trafficking and sale of exotic animals and protected species without respect to local environmental sustainability, the safety of the animal, international law, or legitimate businesses that play by the rules.
Some of these individuals and organizations also take part in cross-over crimes (PDF) that include poaching animals and plants; falsifying hunting or fishing licenses; human trafficking; trafficking firearms or ammunition, trafficking drugs and counterfeit pharmaceuticals; illegal mining; and smuggling undeclared products to avoid taxes. In destabilized regions of the world armed militia groups (page 8) have been identified as profiting from these endeavors by direct control of resources and illegal distribution or through illegal taxation on local peoples attempting to sell their goods (pages 7-8).
The United Nations Environment Programme and Interpol estimate that the global illegal wildlife trade, illegal mining, illegal fisheries, and other environmental crimes, including the illegal timber trade, is worth $70-213 billion each year (page 4). Of this, the illegal trade in plants and animals – excluding fisheries – represents roughly $7-23 billion dollars per year (page 7). Transnational organized crime is a threat not only to wildlife populations and the tourism revenue that is generated from it, but also to governmental agencies susceptible to corruption and graft at all levels. Aided at every level by subsistence poachers, commercial poachers, organized crime syndicates and regional poaching syndicates, insurgent militia groups, or corrupt officials, wildlife traffickers act as the middle-man between poachers and wholesalers or consumers.
For more information on national and transnational efforts to stop environmental crimes view our section on Environmental Crime Operations ►
In June of 2014 Feisal Mohamed Ali along with four suspected accomplices (Abdul Halim Sadiq, Abdulmajeed Ibrahim, Ghalib Sadiq Kara, and Pravez Noor Mohamed) were found in Mombasa, Kenya with 228 elephant tusks and 74-86 other pieces of ivory stashed at a warehouse. The ivory cumulatively weighed 2,152 kg (4,734 pounds). The Kenyan national was charged with crimes in Kenya, and two suspects were arrested during the ivory seizure, but Ali quickly fled to neighboring Tanzania. On 22 December, 2014 Ali was arrested in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and two days later extradited to Kenya on charges of dealing in wildlife trophies and suspicion of being involved in an international wildlife trafficking ring. He pleaded not guilty to all crimes and faced a number of bail hearings since his December arrest and January 2016 trial. In July 2016 a Kenyan magistrate sentenced Ali to 20 years in prison, however Ali’s lawyers promised to appeal. Four other defendants, possibly his accomplices, were acquitted of related charges. In November of 2016, based on alleged irregularities in the way evidence was used to convict Ali but not his associates, his lawyers have sought to appeal the sentence.
Ali was one of three high-profile fugitives arrested as part of INTERPOL’s global Operation Infra Terra which began in October of 2014 and continued into 2015.
Since at least 2003, Laotian national Vixay Keosavang has operated three companies each tied to wildlife trafficking and laundering of illegal wildlife with the help of bribes to government officials who provide falsified documents so the animal parts can be legally imported by other nations observing CITES conventions. Transparency International’s most recent report from 2015 ranked Laos as 139th of 168 evaluated countries, placing it among the most corrupt countries in the world.
In July of 2009 Kenyan authorities seized a shipment addressed to ‘Xeosavang Trading’ containing 280 kilograms (616 pounds) of illicit ivory and rhinoceros horn on the way from Mozambique to Laos. In addition to openly importing illicit goods, ‘Xeosavang Trading’ (Xaysavang Trading) along with his trusted associate, Thai national Chumlong Lemongthai, are known to have hired people to travel to South Africa and pose as legitimate hunters while staging hunts, even taking photos with the kill, before flying the trophies to Southeast Asia. Fraudulent hunts like these have hurt the South African trophy hunting industry which has repeatedly come under scrutiny as the result of a few businesses selling fraudulent hunts in the United States and South Africa. It has also caused South African customs agents to racially profile Asians who could be acting as mules for trafficking syndicates and outright ban the issue of trophy hunting permits to Vietnamese.
Vixay’s ‘Vannaseng Trading’ and ‘Vinasakhone Trading’ companies were each authorized by the Laotian government to sell tens of millions of dollars of exotic wildlife bones, skins, and scales, including those that are completely banned for commercial trade at an international level. When confronted in 2013 regarding his businesses, Vixay denied being in the wildlife business. In November of 2013 the United States put out a $1 million award for information leading to the dismantling of Vixay’s well-established trafficking syndicate.
Several years ago counter-trafficking organization Freeland discovered Vixay’s complicity in wildlife trafficking deals with the Bach brothers, two Vietnamese nationals who operate in Thailand and have trafficking networks that stretch through Laos and into neighboring parts of Vietnam and nearby southern China.
On 24 March, 2014 three Chinese nationals were apprehended at Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek, Nimibia with two suitcases containing 14 rhino horns and one leopard skin. These raw wildlife products were valued at N$2.35 million (roughly $220,000), but the street price would be substantially higher. Wang Hui, with successful businesses in his home town in China as well as Angola and Zambia, was apprehended at a casino in 2015 and has been fingered as the ringleader of the smuggling operation, though the group’s defense attorney has denied that the group has any form of hierarchy. Prosecutors have used video evidence to show that the three others, Pu Xuexin, Li Zhibing, and Li Xiaoliang, were subordinates and receipts indicate that the trio’s airfare was paid by Hui. A chief inspector has also accused Wang Hui of offering him a bribe, an allegation that is currently under investigation. According to Zhibing’s own initial testimony they were aware of what products they were being paid $3,000 to transport. In 2015 they were charged with smuggling wildlife products, possession or export of illegal proceeds, and illegal dealing or possession of wildlife products. They initially denied guilt of all charges. On 30 September, 2016 the four men were each sentenced to 14 years in prison.
In a separate incident in February of 2016 a Chinese national with a work permit and a Namibian citizen were charged with the illegal possession of 94 kilograms (207 pounds) of abalone, any of a group of sea snails and are currently threatened by illegal and unreported fishing. The Chinese national was additionally charged with illegally dealing elephant and rhinoceros parts and 1.5 kg (3.3 pounds) of rhino horn pieces were found in his possession. Bank details show that he had received or deposited nearly N$2 million (roughly $140,00) in multiple bank accounts under his name, which the prosecution claimed is more than he could have reasonably made from his work. Six cars were also seized from the two men. The trial is ongoing.
Ivory Trader: A joint-operation between multiple law enforcement, wildlife protection agencies, and task forces around the world code-named Operation Cobra II (30 December 2013 – 26 January 2014) resulted in the seizure of more than 3,000 kilograms (6,600 pounds) of ivory, 36 rhino horns, over 10,000 turtles, and thousands of other animals and wildlife products. Among the successes during the course of the operation in Tanzania was the arrest of Yu Bo, a Chinese national allegedly in the country for business. He was caught at Dar es Salaam port in possession of 81 elephant tusks and 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of pangolin scales. Having plead guilty to his charges he was fined over 9 billion Tanzania Shillings ($6.5 million), but was unable to pay and was instead sentenced to 20 years in jail.
Ivory Queen: In October of 2015 a Chinese businesswoman living in East Africa since 1975 was arrested by Tanzania’s National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit for her extensive involvement in an ivory trafficking ring going back to at least 2006, with a history of trafficking going back to early 2000. Sixty-six year old Yang Feng Lan has been dubbed the “Queen of Ivory” due to her alleged role as ringleader of the prolific trafficking ring. She is alleged to have helped smuggle at least 706 elephant tusks, weighing 1,889 kg (4,155 pounds), from East Africa to China by using her local and international connections to subvert national and international trade bans. As of October 2015 Feng Lan faces a maximum jail sentence of 30 years.
Several of Feng Lan’s suppliers of ivory, as well as traffickers of Chinese nationality, were also arrested by the Tanzanian task force during the same operation. At the time of her arrest the unit is believed to have averaged one arrest per day since its creation.
Rhino Horn Smugglers: In November 2015 the Tanzanian Police and the National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit arrested four Chinese nationals (shown on right) on suspicion of smuggling. In December a Tanzanian court found them guilty on charges of unlawfully dealing in government trophies, unlawful possession of 11 rhino horns, and participating in organized crime. Chen Jianlin, Hu Liang, Song Lei, and Xiao Shaodan have been sentenced to twenty years in prison and a fine of 10 billion Tanzanian Shillings (roughly $4.6 million).
On 3 December, 2015 the 22 year-old exotic wildlife trader and alleged smuggler Phan Huỳnh Anh Khoa was arrested by National Environment Police at a coffee shop during a sting operation assisted by the Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV) and Wildlife Conservation Society. This arrest was the culmination of more than two years of investigations by Education for Nature-Vietnam after they had received a tipoff that Khoa was advertising for sale a protected species. On 21 June, 2016 he was sentenced to five years in prison and fined VNĐ 50 million ($2,242) for illegally selling wildlife.
Khoa brazenly posted photos of himself with animals that he had for sale in his pet shop or which he was selling out of his home through clandestine meetings with prospective clients. Photos included posing with a baby tiger, various birds, sea turtles, leopard cats, a python, pangolins, and monkeys. According to his own Facebook profile he acquired some of the pet shop’s animals from sellers in Thailand and Cambodia, which he then brought to Vietnam on his own or with the help of a companion or mule. In one of his posts he brags that the month after he returns from abroad he is always very busy with customer orders.
This was not the first time the young man had been investigated. On the rare occasions when the local police would investigate allegations of illegal sales of protected wildlife the shop would be cleared out and Khoa would be gone, one step ahead of the authorities. He had also been fined several times in the past, including a VNĐ 3 million ($134) fine from the HCM City’s Forest Protection Department, and once had been tipped off by an authority in the local government that he was being investigated by ENV. The organization has since speculated that tipoffs from the local government may have helped Khoa to avoid arrest in previous raids on the pet shop.
Animals found in Khoa’s possession during his December 2015 arrest were given into the care of Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Station which specializes in taking in confiscated wildlife and is operated by Wildlife At Risk.
While small-scale poaching exists in the United States criminal syndicates are a lesser-known but larger contributor to wildlife trafficking of animal parts.
In January of 2013 undercover US Fish and Wildlife Service agents arrested Chinese citizen Zhifei Li for trafficking 30 rhino horns as well as finished pieces of ivory and rhino horn from the United States to China. At the time of arrest he was attempting to purchase a rhino horn for $59,000. According to federal officials Li and his associates are known to have smuggled elephant ivory and rhino horn to China from 2011-2013.
In 2015 the head of Elite Estate Buyers, a luxury action house in the United States, and owner of Elite Decorative Arts, plead guilty to trafficking a number of wildlife products from endangered species including rhino horn and elephant ivory. His business was fined $1.5 million and he faces a fine of up to $250,000.