Inside the illegal wildlife trade

From elephants to pangolins, animals are being killed in “the conservation crisis of our generation”. Can they be saved?
By Graeme Green

“All hell usually breaks loose,” Ray Jansen says, describing a sting operation. “It’s very similar to a combat mission: you’re not really sure how it’s going to pan out. Your heart’s racing, palms sweating, adrenaline pulsing, and you’re just waiting…”

Lives are on the line in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade, not just the lives of animals but of the people working to protect them. Professor Ray Jansen, Chairman of the African Pangolin Working Group, leads operations to locate and save pangolins from being trafficked. After days or weeks of detective work and negotiations, working to convince traffickers he’s “an interested buyer,” Jansen and his team play a waiting game in car parks and shopping malls across southern Africa.

The traffickers arrive. A price is agreed. “They make a call and a vehicle appears with another two or three people who want in on the money,” Jansen explains. “A sack appears. Sometimes the pangolin’s been kept for two weeks without food or water, and it’s close to death’s door. I open the bag. The pangolin’s tightly curled up, absolutely terrified. I feel that it’s breathing. I signal the units by placing both my hands on my head…”

Photo by Audrey June / HSI

“It goes down in a few seconds,” he continues. “There’s screaming, shouting. Undercover Land Cruisers, undercover squad cars, plain-closed police men on foot with semi-automatic weapons, police dogs… There’s usually a large crowd of onlookers, cell phones out. Sometimes a gun fight breaks out.”

Once the traffickers are arrested, Jansen checks on the pangolin. “My only thoughts are how I can save its life,” he says. “At this stage, they often uncurl and stare straight at me. It’s a surreal experience, almost spiritual and magical, and extremely emotional. I remember that moment with every single one.”

Pangolins are trafficked in vast numbers to China, Vietnam and other parts of Asia, their scales used in traditional ‘medicine’, their meat considered a luxury food in parts of Asia, their skins and other body parts used in fashion. While Jansen’s operations focus on individual living pangolins, the trade in central and west Africa often involves large volumes of pangolin scales from dead, poached animals.

All eight pangolin species found across Africa and Asia are threatened with extinction. In just ten years, more than one million pangolins have been illegally traded, making them the most trafficked mammals in the world.

Pangolins are just the tip of the iceberg in the world’s illegal wildlife trade. Worth an estimated £6.2 to £15 billion ($8 to $23 billion US dollars) each year, wildlife is one of the world’s most lucrative transnational criminal enterprises, up there with drugs, guns and human trafficking. There’s plenty of overlap, with syndicates trafficking wildlife also often involved in other criminal activities.

Ivory products / HSI

7,000 different species have been seized from the global illegal wildlife trade. Tiger bones and rhino horn are often bought for traditional ‘medicine,’ despite having no medicinal properties. Other wildlife parts include skins, leathers, teeth and bones, which are often turned into jewellery or ornaments. Live animals are also sold as pets. The coronavirus, which has killed hundreds of people in China, is thought to have originated from meat sold in China’s wildlife markets, possibly pangolin or bat.

The illegal trade is driving animals, from elephants, rhinos and tigers to the lesser known pangolins, rapidly towards extinction. In many cases, extinction is desirable to the traffickers; the fewer animals there are, the more the prices for ivory, rhino horn or other animal parts increase. Death is good for business.

Iris Ho / HSI

“The illegal wildlife trade is the conservation crisis of our generation,” says Iris Ho, a senior specialist in Programs and Policy with the Humane Society International. “Wildlife trafficking is very low risk, but with high profits, and that’s why its thriving. Its driving the biodiversity loss of our planet.”

Despite the 2018 ivory ban in China, one of the largest markets for illegal wildlife products, elephants are still being killed at a disturbing rate for their profitable tusks. Around 55 elephants are thought to be killed by poachers every day across Africa each day, with ivory worth around £538 ($700 USD) per kilo. “Just because individual countries banned ivory, it doesn’t mean our work’s finished,” Ho explains. “There are criminals who still want to launder these products to the black market and there are consumers seeking ivory products. It’s just heart-breaking to know so many elephants have been killed, so that somebody can have an ivory trinket and show off their wealth status. African elephants are one of the symbols of African natural heritage, and they shouldn’t be killed and reduced to trinkets and vanity items.”

African elephant / HSI

Reducing the poaching and catching the traffickers can only do so much. As with the drug trade, while the demand exists and while huge profits are there to be made, there will always be someone ready to supply. Stopping the trade means reducing the demand. Across Asia, that means combatting traditional beliefs and myths that with rhino horn, pangolin scales, tiger bone and blood, and other products have magical benefits on everything from cancer to impotence.

Seized ivory / HSI

Why, in this age of science, technology and widespread information, is there still such a demand for animal parts that do nothing? “We’re talking about decades of these myths and inaccurate beliefs that rhino horn or pangolin scales can cure disease or tiger bones can boost a man’s manhood,” Ho explains. “Pangolin scales are just made of keratin, like our finger nails and hair. These are myths, and we need to continue to spread the word to debunk them. I think the word is getting out amongst the younger generations.”

“We have to be realistic. It’s still an uphill battle to eradicate the demand for these products. But for shark fins, rhino horns and elephant ivory, we also need to look at the progress made in the last decade or so. We have at least 40 airlines and shipping lines and also many hotel chains that pledged to stop transporting and serving sharks’ fins. There’s a gradual decrease in the demand for sharks’ fins, ivory, rhino horn and other products.”

Iris Ho at an ivory crush event / HSI

With animals, from pangolins to elephants, in danger of going extinct in the next 10 years, the messages urgently need to hit home quicker. “It’s a huge problem to tackle,” Ho agrees. “Every single animal counts, so there are frustrations that come with our job.”

There’s a tendency for the world to blame the illegal wildlife trade solely on Asia, on China, Vietnam and Hong Kong. But it’s a global problem, with products driving the extinction crisis also found in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. “I’m based in the US and we’ve found pangolin products for sale here,” Ho says. “10 years ago, apparently, the United States imported quite a lot of pangolin skins and turned them into boots and other leather products. The illegal wildlife trade affects almost every country in the world. The United States is the largest market for wildlife products, and that includes both legal and illegal products.

Photo by Jose Pablo Vasquez Badillla / HSI

“We also need to look at the volume of the legal trade,” Ho continues. “The recent IPBES report said that a million species are threatened with extinction. The United States is a huge importer and exporter of reptiles and amphibians. We’re talking millions of amphibians and reptile species caught up in the exotic pet trade. Geckos, for example, are a popular pet to own, and that’s not only in the US but also in the UK and in Europe. 40 per cent of amphibians are now threatened by extinction. Just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it sustainable.”

The public need to make informed choices. “From fashion to food, furniture to medicine, wildlife products are amongst us in our daily life,” Ho explains. “As consumers, we need to ask “Where is my product coming from? What is it made of? Does my purchase have an impact on our planet and on wild animals?” Every individual can be part of the solution. But if you don’t know about the crisis facing the animals, you’re not going to know how to protect them.”

As with climate change, lifestyle and consumer choices alone won’t solve the crisis. Action is required from the world’s leaders. “Governments play a critical role in solving the illegal wildlife trade,” explains Ho. “We don’t have the resources to rescue one animal after another, but we can save hundreds of animals with one policy change.”

Is corruption and a lack of will from governments stopping the necessary changes being made? “Corruption definitely plays a role in illegal wildlife trafficking. I mean, how is a shipment of illegal wildlife worth millions of dollars able to go from Mombasa in Kenya, passing through several ports, all the way to Asia?

“But there’s also a lack of political will, and that’s why the public, when they see their governments not doing enough, they need to be outraged,” Ho concludes. “We need to demand more of our governments. If we don’t, the inaction will continue. We can’t give up. I know that sounds frustrating but we only have one planet and wildlife extinction is forever, so we must continue to pressure governments to make sure they know what the public’s demands are. Our governments represent us and we have every right to demand action from them.”

Photos from Humane Society International.

For more on the work of Humane Society International, including the illegal wildlife trade, visit:

African Pangolin Working Group:

Graeme Green is a journalist and photographer:

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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